Got Snow?

January 5, 2012

Got Snow?

Snow - or the complete lack thereof – is perennial winter conversation. Doppler radar maps allow us to access a range of forecasts. Look at the 7-day: temperatures will approach 50 degrees in Boston this weekend. Last winter’s record-breaking snowfall for Boston was 81 inches of snow compared to the average of 44 inches. The lowest snowfall received in winter was 9” in 1936-’37. So far this winter, Boston has received one inch.

Weather is generally "soft news" useful to predict commute time or bad hair days at worst. For wildlife, weather is "hard news" spelling survival for the animals best-adapted to ever-changing weather. New Hampshire weather is notorious for fluctuations. Which animals win or lose during an open, low-snowfall winter?

Mammals with varying pelage - white snowshoe hares and a diminutive and ferocious native weasel - the "ermine" - with its snow-white fur coat and black-tipped tail - are not particularly well-camouflaged in forests devoid of snow. Hormones trigger annual transformations from summer brown to winter white and back in springtime. The ignore the conventional fashion advice to never wear white after Labor Day. They may pay for the fashion faux pas with their lives.

Birds and mammals adapted to life under snow include ruffed grouse, mice and red squirrels. Snow provides thermal cover and concealment for "subnivian" (under snow) species. Without snow, rodents are exposed to predators including foxes and owls. Without snow, frost reaches deeper into burrows dug in un-insulated soil.

On the positive side, deer and turkeys continue to enjoy easy access to forest "mast" crops including oak acorns, beech nuts, birch seeds and the bumper crop of ash seeds. With shallow snow, running is easy with no wallowing. Predators like coyotes also conserve calories but their advantage while chasing winter-weakened deer is diminished.

In human terms, those who hate shoveling roofs and driveways rejoice at the lack of deep snow while the State’s ski area operators and snow plow drivers are dismayed at a lack of white gold. Parallel tales in the woods either punish or profit the local wildlife according to their respective adaptations and reliance on deep snow for winter survival.