In recent years, local snowfall has been limited to one or two storms a year. These storms were sandwiched in between periods of warmer weather, preventing the precipitation from sticking around. This year, the snow is already piling up, and we will have a storm or two more before winter’s end.
While we are not used to snow sticking around Garden City, this is a normal part of winter in other areas. In the northeast, snowstorms can start as early as October and begin to pile up in November and December. With snow covering the ground for so long, it creates challenges for local wildlife. For example, food sources can become inaccessible due to snow cover.
When deep snow covers the grass, rabbits and deer turn to woodier options for their meals, consuming twigs and twig buds. This weather-induced diet change provides a unique opportunity to observe the chew marks left behind on twigs by local herbivores.
Rabbits typically leave a clean, angled, bite mark close to the ground due to the shape of their front teeth. Deer, on the other hand, tear or break the branch with their wide flat teeth. Broken branches caused by deer grazing can be found from ground height to above head height for a white-tailed deer. The height of chew marks might be surprising to some, but it is normal for deer to stand on their hind legs to access edible items above the reach of other herbivores.
With the snow sticking around this year, you will have an opportunity to test your newfound knowledge of chew marks. If you’re spotting plants in your yard that have been pruned, but not by you, stop and take a closer look to see if a rabbit or deer was snacking away.
Chew marks aren’t the only way to discover wildlife in winter. Freshly fallen snow is perfect for spotting animal tracks. By studying snow tracks, we can discover details about an animal’s activity after a storm.
If you find deer hoof prints crossing a snowy field, take some time to observe them. Upon closer inspection, you might notice that the deer hoof prints are perfectly shaped; this detail tells us that the deer was taking very intentional steps. More than likely, the animal was walking cautiously to ensure they did not trip in deep snow. Just like I don't want to lose my footing in the snow and end up on the ground, deer don't want to be tripped up either.
Snow lasting longer than just a day can be a challenge for both humans and wildlife. Animals have found ways to make the best of this situation, and we can, too. So, next time the snow begins to fall, don't focus on the negatives and instead focus on what you can discover while the snow is here. Bundle up, get outdoors, and explore the wildlife clues found in a winter wonderland.
Catie Policastro is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.