A little rain: wild animals still stressed, MDC explains
Traveler Exclusive Story
By Jo Schaper
South and eastern Missouri is getting a little rain this weekend, but according to the National Weather Service Long Term Drought Severity Index, our part of the country is going to need between 12 and 15 inches, and in the Bootheel, over 15 inches of rain, to bring us up to “normal” for the year.
Long term climate predictions for now until October, show that drought conditions are expected to continue or intensify over much of the midwest part of the country.
How is the wildlife holding out? After Jim Donley of Warrenton reported that he has 8 tom turkeys that come to his back yard every morning looking for a drink near his garden, then rummaging in the grass, and paying no attention to him while they foraged, we became curious.
Traveler talked with two Missouri Department of Conservation officials, one in St. Louis and one in Wayne County for their perspectives.
More odd animal behaviors
Sarajane Hackler Zahn, posting on Facebook to our inquiry, said: “We have had loads of squirrels digging holes and spreading out the dirt to lay their bellies on in our backyard. The birds and squirrels are also a lot slower to respond to humans than normal.”
Others reported rabbit invasions, more snakes than normal, birds and squirrels being slower to respond to humans, and perhaps the best, from Calvin Brennan of Cape Girardeau, who reported that “his trees whistle for the dog when I let him out.”
Although we are in the midst of the worst drought on record since 1956, (not quite as bad as the Dust Bowl years of 1934-36) wild animals have been coping (more or less) with extreme weather conditions for longer than that.
Mike Ardruser, natural history biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation St. Louis Region, explains it this way:
“This is a natural occurrence. We need to just let it play out,” he said. “Animals have changed their movements, because their usual water sources have dried up, and with the lack of rain, some food sources are gone, too. We’re getting a lot of reports of wildlife close to houses, and some of them behaving fearlessly. Unusual bird species showing up in urban birdbaths. Those sorts of reports.
“One fellow I know has 900 acres in Franklin County, and 10 of his 13 springs are gone. That’s going to affect where the animals can get a drink.”
Even where it does rain, it’s been spotty, and often dried up or sunk into the ground within 24 hours.
“It’s fine if you keep the birdbath filled, but you don’t need to run a firehose to the pond. That would be excessive,” he said.
“We’re getting a lot of reports…the public are our eyes and ears on this, but we’re just going to have to see how this plays out in regards to the fall hunting season,” Ardruser said. “If the drought keeps up, and the movement patterns change, that will affect where the deer and the turkey are found.
“We’ve noticed that some of the fruits and nuts are early this year, and some are drying up as well. If the food source for the game animals is scarce, they will be more liable to move around during the day.”
The drought may tip the balance in favor of predators, too, he said. “If the prey animals are really stressed, they may be easier for predators to capture– assuming the predator is in decent shape. And as the herbaceous plants dry up, and thickets become crispy, it’s easier for animals to be seen, and hunted.”
In Wayne County, Conservation Agent Mic Plunkett reported much more deer crop damage than normal. “I’ve had a rash of deer in the soybeans calls, something that normally doesn’t happen until later in the year.”
“We’ve noticed more deer-crop damage reports. The conditions are just perfect for deer to be out in the middle of the day, pretty hungry, just looking for something to eat and drink.”
Plunkett said there was an up side: the warm, dry conditions this spring resulted in a bumper number of turkeys. ” We’ve got a tremendous number of hens with pouts. I’ve got two hens with 14 little ones, and sometimes they’ve ended up in the tomato patch. But so far, they’re hanging in there, and doing ok.
“All wildlife is having a hard time of it. If the ponds and creeks dry up, they’ll get water wherever they can. Turkeys usually feed on something like 90% grasshoppers. I’ve had reports of turkeys on people’s lawns, looking for the insects and grasshoppers, because their usual places are dry as straw with fewer bugs.”
And the strange squirrel behavior? “I’ve seen rabbits do that, and squirrels too, probably. It’s called dusting. They’ll scratch up a bare spot and wallow around in the dust. It helps get rid of fleas and mites.”
With the leaves on dried up trees turning yellow and brown, Plunkett says the squirrels started cutting hickory nuts a month ago. “They are way ahead of schedule. I think they’re cutting the nuts for the water, because they aren’t ripe yet.”
He is also concerned about a higher incidence of hemorrhagic disease in deer who cannot get enough to drink. “The disease is spread by a midge that lives in the mud. The deer are having to cross mud flats to get to water, and we’re concerned that they may be more exposed to midges this year. The disease causes deer’s tongues to swell, and they die of dehydration and, as the name implies, internal hemorrhaging.
“We really won’t know what effect the drought will have on fall hunting until we get closer in,” he said, “and it depends if we get more rain between here and there. I hope we do. It’s getting bad out there.”