Local animals adapt, hibernate through the snow storm

By David Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; 1:07 PM

Don't worry: The squirrels will get through this.

Although this weekend's blizzard smothered their paths, their nests and much of their food under an avalanche of snow, there's no reason to worry about Washington area wildlife, local biologists say. This is, after all, nature: They're built for it.

"They adjust," said Bob Beyer of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Certainly, better than we do."

Some local animals adapt to the cold by sleeping through it, by hibernating or slowing their metabolism down greatly. This group includes groundhogs and skunks in the city, and black bears in the woods to the west of Washington.

Others, scientists say, will find a place and stay there, awake but not stirring to eat. Deer might choose a depression or a spot in underbrush, shielded from the wind. Squirrels and birds might stay in nests.

"Wildlife aren't like humans, they sort of just hunker down. They don't need to eat like we need to eat," said Bryan King of the D.C. Department of the Environment.

He also noted that we don't need to eat that often, either.

When these animals do stir to eat, scientists said the squirrels and deer can find food -- even with the ground covered in snow. They will eat leaves, buds and nuts from trees -- the deer sometimes stand on hind legs to reach them. King said that white-tailed deer mothers are pregnant now, but it is too early to worry about fawns too short to reach food in the trees.

"There are no little Bambis running around," he said.

Birds might wait until the snow settles and hardens, and then walk on the surface to find seeds dropped from snow-laden trees.

Overall, biologists said, it would take weeks and weeks of cold and snow cover to put local creatures in danger. They said residents should not feed animals, for fear of making them dependent on the food when weather warms.

"You're better off, on the whole, not feeding animals," Beyer said, even now.

One of the biggest impacts might come in the water: As snow melts over the coming weeks, it will fill the Potomac and Anacostia rivers with cold water. That could push back the annual runs of shad, herring and rockfish, which seem to take warming water temperatures as their cue to swim upstream through the Chesapeake Bay and spawn.

Unfortunately, the rats will be fine, too. King said they'll probably wait out the snow underground.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company