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First taste of winter can confound wildlife

A pheasant rooster standing on a yard in town, a Hungarian partridge on our front step, four big turkeys under a bird feeder and a wolf sleeping on West Battle Lake.

These are four of the stories that imparted from relatives over the Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend just past.

What the heck is going on?

Last Monday the area tasted a good dusting of snow followed by some horribly cold temperatures. While we humans were shoveling, salting and shivering, wildlife was treated to its first good helping of winter, the most difficult season of the year for survival.

My timing on setting up a small feeder of shell corn at our farm must have been perfect because on Sunday it was full and on Thursday it was empty. I was able to find a lot of deer, rabbit and bird tracks in the snow around the feeder so my little cafe was quite a hit.

Throw wildlife a sudden change of weather and it can catch them off guard in a big way. During a January blizzard I once found a hen pheasant huddled against the pump house in our farmyard. Another time we had a ruffed grouse sitting in a birch tree in our front yard of our place in Fergus Falls. Over the last couple years we have had songbirds take shelter in our garage if a blizzard comes up. They are not there for the food. They just want to avoid freezing to death.

Wildlife can be totally unpredictable this time of the year. On a late afternoon drive Sunday my wife spotted a tundra swan sitting by itself in the middle of a plowed field and asked me if it could be injured? Yes, it could. Tundra swans have been migrating southward through west-central Minnesota in big flocks but you rarely see them alone.

It is human nature to want to help wildlife when the snow starts to fly but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both discourage the practice. The FWS has not set out corn plots on their production and management areas for years. They even bulldoze small wood lots on their land to discourage certain predators.

Before you put these FWS wildlife managers down as cold-hearted scoundrels you have to stop and consider their point of view. Tree groves provide shelter for wildlife all right, but some of that wildlife preys on ducks and pheasants. A nice, tall tree can make a fine perch for a great-horned owl, one of the deadliest of avian predators, and a dead tree can make a swell home for a family of marauding raccoons. When you are in the business of raising waterfowl it does not do to have any extra predators around.

Personally, I am all for food plots if they are taken care of and placed in the proper spot, which is usually where you cannot see them. Deer and other wildlife like the shelter of a woods in the winter.

I was after a pal of mine for years to plant a five-acre piece of ground he owns in the middle of a big woods to corn. He finally took the hint a couple of springs ago. It is a perfect spot. Not only does the corn plot get good exposure to the sun in the growing months, the plot is far from any highway and a good quarter-mile from the nearest house. The wildlife that use the plot come from every point of the compass. By the end of December there are deep, hard-packed trails leading to it from everywhere. By the time spring returns the plot is totally stripped. Last spring, we could not find a cob, or even a single kernel of corn left in that plot.

Put a food plot out where it suits you and it can lead to trouble. A small two-acre plot of right outside of my home town was a magnet for deer one hard winter but it also stood right next to a busy highway. Several deer were killed in collisions with traffic.

Winter wildlife can live on buds, seeds, acorns and brows just fine but you will not see them turning down a helping hand when winter really turns ugly.