Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
The treasure hunt to survive

Today’s post comes from Anna Scuhr, Lake Superior Provincial Park Naturalist.

The arrival of snow and ice transforms the rugged landscape of Lake Superior Provincial Park into an incredibly beautiful, yet unforgiving, place to live.

As temperatures drop, the park can accumulate up to six feet of snow inside. Snow makes almost every aspect of an animal’s life more challenging.

Northern winters are a true test of an animal’s fitness. Let’s see how they adapt to survive long and harsh winters.

A wild winter wonderland

Snowshoe tracks in the forest

Wildlife have an amazing variety of strategies to survive this harsh season.

Many birds migrate south to warmer climates to avoid the difficult conditions altogether. Other animals hide and slow down their metabolism to hibernate until spring arrives. Winter-active animals must be cunning and resourceful to endure this long, cold season.

Canada jayThe Canada jay is commonly known as “whiskeyjack”, which comes from the Cree and Algonquin languages ​​(Wìsakedjàk in Algonquin, Wihsakecahkw in Cree).

Some, like the red squirrel or the Canada jay, depend on food reserves collected before snowfall, called caches. Others, impressively, continue to search for food despite the ice and snow.

red squirrel in winter

Snowshoe hares browse evergreen branches, managing to stay on top of the snow thanks to their large legs that distribute their weight. Moose trudge through the snow on their long legs, notably sustaining their enormous bodies on a diet of twigs.

Snowshoe hare in summer and winter.

Then there are the predators. Wild hunters who must search for animal prey to survive.

Hunter and prey

red fox in the snow

Today’s human hunters hunt wild animals in the forest, but they need not worry if they return home empty-handed. We are lucky to have grocery stores we can trust for food.

This is not the case with forest predators.

The animals that live here have adapted to be skilled hunters even in deep snow. However, prey is much more difficult to locate and capture in winter.

3 wolves in the snow

Hunting in the snow also consumes more energy. Conserving energy is everything in the wild, especially when you’re not sure when you’ll find your next meal.

Many people think that garbage collection is a field of specialists, like vultures. In reality, a surprising number of predators will resort to scavenging when the opportunity presents itself.

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This is especially true in the winter, when they experience a considerable amount of feeding stress.

Waste not, want not

Despite their impressive adaptations, winter is a challenging season for all animals.

Their bodies require more energy to move through the snow and stay warm, but it is more difficult to obtain sources of nutrition. The brutal reality of the Canadian winter is that many weaker animals do not survive and starvation is relatively common.

Winter monitoring of snow detectives

In November 2011, park staff found the remains of a moose hunted by human hunters. The staff decided to install a camera to observe what happens to the bodies of these animals after their death.

The hope was that this trail camera would give us a glimpse of some of the animals that would come looking for food. We were not disappointed!

In just a few days, the camera captured no less than seven different species scavenging around the place!

Scavengers unite!

A pine marten is the first to be captured on camera, having managed to sniff out the carcass of a snow-covered moose.

The marten approaches the carcass of a moosePine Marten sniffs out the moose carcass

The small terrestrial rodents that these weasels prefer to eat are among the least negatively affected by a thick blanket of snow. Snow insulates them from colder temperatures and protects them from predators.

In winter, pine martens often search for prey in snow-covered spaces under wood debris. Here we can see him digging up some pretty substantial chunks of meat, which is impressive considering the moose is at least partially frozen.

The next day, a rough-legged hawk discovers the now partially exposed carcass.

Falcon pecks at the carcass of the mooseRough-legged hawk visits the carcass

The hawk does not stay long, perhaps finding the meat too frozen for his taste. In winter, these carcasses must be consumed quickly before the meat freezes completely, usually within 12 to 48 hours.

A group of Common Crows are next to arrive for dinner. Upon discovering a corpse, crows display quite interesting behavior. Young, unpaired crows will call loudly to attract other individuals in their age group to the feast.

This seems surprisingly generous, until you realize that to the young crows this is not just a buffet, but also a singles gathering. This is an opportunity to show off in the hope of finding a partner. Resident pairs of crows, on the other hand, tend to quietly enjoy their food without attracting too much attention.

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Soon, several bald eagles appear on the scene and we can see a pecking order being established. At first, the eagles are somewhat aggressive and possessive of the carcass, but they soon settle in and allow the cheeky crows to eat alongside them.

Several days later, the camera is activated by a Fisher who investigates the scant remains of the massacre.

A fisherman visits the moose carcass.A fisherman stops

The fisherman, whose name is misleading, does not actually eat fish. They hunt mainly snowshoe hares, squirrels, mice, voles and shrews. They occasionally feed on birds and are also one of the few predators capable of taking down a porcupine. Like most other carnivores, they will readily eat carrion if they find it.

A red fox is captured at the location the next day. These animals are primarily solitary hunters and are known to be very opportunistic.

Red Fox walks next to the corpseRed fox

A few days later, a gray wolf appears. Wolves are pack animals that hunt in groups, taking down ungulates such as elk. However, one third of their diet is made up of smaller mammals such as beavers, hares, squirrels and mice. Obviously, this guy isn’t about to pass up a free snack.

Ironically, in mild years, when winter mortality is low, wolves play a key role in helping to sustain other scavengers. When they abandon their prey once full, the leftovers provide a buffet for other local scavengers.

In spring, insects and rodents will end up devouring the entire skeleton. If you come across a bone or antler in the woods, you may see evidence of this bite.

Life after death

Viewing a recovered carcass is not only an exciting opportunity to observe interesting animal behaviors, but also a chance to reflect on the beauty of resilience and the interconnectedness of life.

In nature, death (even that of a creature as majestic as a moose) is not a cause for mourning, but a celebration of life. The nutrients that formed its body will sustain many other animals, taking on infinite forms over time.

While the habits of scavengers may be frightening, they remind us that we too are part of the beautiful web of life.