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Superstorms hard on wildlife

By Scott Shalaway

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy has claimed more than 70 American lives and done an estimated $50 billion in damage, and those numbers are likely to increase. Another unspoken toll thus far is that taken on wildlife. How can wildlife possibly survive a superstorm? That's certainly been the topic of many emails I received this week.

The answer is, "we don't know." Sandy is the biggest storm on record for the eastern U.S. Its effects were felt from Florida to Canada and west to Wisconsin. There is no worse storm to which it can be compared. I doubt there's ever been a storm to deliver hurricane force wind and rain to coastal areas and blizzard conditions to the mountains all in one big punch. But let's consider some of the ways that wildlife survives severe weather events.

Along the coasts where storm surges measured more than 12 feet, few animals other than birds can survive. Trapped in burrows or under surface vegetation, most small mammals would drown. And even though most burrows turn upward before reaching the den, the total saturation of sandy coastal soils would make surviving near impossible.

The same goes for turtles, snakes, and amphibians. Those that have already buried themselves into the muck for the winter might stand a chance of survival -- if the sheer turbulence of the storm didn't uproot them from their resting places.

And judging by the mountains of beach sand that have been displaced, even marine species including fish, clams, and crabs, probably died from sheer physical trauma.

Freshwater wetlands inundated by saltwater would become death traps for freshwater species. Plants and animals that require fresh water cannot survive inundation by saltwater. It will be interesting to see how much coastal life survives next spring.

Birds, of course, can fly. They at least have a chance to survive even the most horrific storms. Storms can pick them up and move them hundreds of miles, to the delight of birders everywhere. Unusual birds began showing up as far west as the Great Lakes before Sandy weakened and died. Rare bird alerts and birding listserves hummed with reports of sea birds such as gulls, terns, phalaropes, gannets, jaegers, loons, scoters, brants, and storm-petrels. On Wednesday, new reports came in several times each hour. Sandy created a bonanza for birders.

The safest place to ride out a storm might be in hollow den trees. Squirrels, raccoons, opossums, woodpeckers, owls, bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches could simply retire to the security of a den tree -- until the wind gets too strong. When trees snap, they often break at a weak spot, such as a cavity. When that happens, cavity dwellers are at the mercy of the storm unless they have a secondary cavity nearby.

Birds that don't normally roost in cavities hunker down in dense vegetation. Bramble thickets, grape tangles, conifers, rhododendron groves, and even dense grasslands provide surprisingly effective cover even during the fiercest weather. Birds' feathers provide waterproof layers of insulation, and they hang on for dear life. A bird's weight automatically locks its toes around the perch, so it's very difficult for a bird to be blown off a perch.

Larger animals adopt different strategies. Coyotes and foxes find shelter in hollow logs and underground dens, especially where they may have raised their last litter of pups. Those that live near abandoned buildings might find a cozy spot inside an old barn, shed, or abandoned vehicle. Their thick fur protects them from high winds and insulates them from plunging temperatures.

Bears can just curl up under a brush pile. White-tailed deer typically bed down under conifers or other dense vegetation. Their pelage sheds water well. A healthy deer can easily withstand several days of rain when temperatures are above freezing. And sometimes even deer will seek refuge in a little-used barn or shed if it's open on one side.

Over the coming months, hunters and hikers will certainly find evidence of Sandy's wrath. In places where everything seems to have been killed, individuals from nearby areas will repopulate even the most devastated sites. It may take time, but wildlife populations almost always rebound and recover.

Send questions and comments to sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

 


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