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Lengthening winter stresses Iowa’s wildlife

Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 10:57 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — This long, cold, snowy winter has not been good for wildlife in Iowa.

The frigid temperatures and deep snow have caused some deer in northeast Iowa to starve to death, Department of Natural Resources biologists said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the state’s most famous wildlife, the Decorah eagles, continue to incubate their three eggs in adverse conditions, and only time will tell if they hatch, according to their godfather, Bob Anderson of Decorah, director of the Raptor Resource Project, the not-for-profit organization that developed the nest cam that’s viewed on millions of computer screens each year.

The eagles, whose first egg appeared Feb. 23, have strived to keep them warm through several subzero days and nights and in mounting snow, including nearly 10 inches that fell Tuesday night.

“We probably won’t know (if they succeeded) until it’s time for the first egg to hatch in another 32 to 33 days,” Anderson said Wednesday.

Anderson said he knows of instances in which both eagle eggs and eagle chicks have frozen under similar extreme winter conditions.

Webcam enthusiasts have monitored the nest round the clock and have reported that the eggs were uncovered a total of 59 minutes in one 48-hour period, he added.

While the eagles tend to their nest, the DNR has been seeing signs of deer starvation in northeast Iowa, where winter snowfall has exceeded 50 inches in several counties, according to Tom Litchfield, the state’s deer biologist.

DNR biologist Terry Haindfield said he performed necropsies on two dead deer that had red bone marrow – a sign of starvation. They also have observed “fuzzy-faced fawns,” an expression used to describe young deer with upright facial hair, a condition that occurs when deer are struggling to maintain body heat because of malnutrition, he said.

Litchfield said cold weather does not bother deer as long as they find adequate food. But deep snow can limit them to browsing on trees and shrubs.

Malnourished does carrying twins involuntarily will direct all available nourishment to one fetus at the expense of the other, he said.

Winter-weakened deer also become much more susceptible to predators such as family groups of coyotes, Litchfield said.

“It’s the tail end of winter that tells the story. Most of the starvation occurs at the end of a winter that won’t quit,” Haindfield said

The snowy winter will cause a further decline in the state’s pheasant population, according to Todd Bogenschutz, the DNR’s upland game biologist.

“Whenever the statewide average snowfall exceeds 31 inches, which is the average right now, pheasant numbers go down,” he said.

Declines will be steepest in the northeast segment of the state, which has had well more snow than the southwest portion, Bogenschutz said.

However, most nongame wildlife species are faring well, said Bruce Ehresman, a biologist with the state’s Wildlife Diversity Program.

“I have not seen animals suffering, but traditional food sources have been nearly used up in some areas,” he said

Ehresman said he has received several reports of goldfinches being much less visible around feeders in northeast Iowa.

“They probably went farther south than they usually do,” he said.

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©2014 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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