Something Wild: Two sides to a thaw

Dave Anderson | January 24, 2013

Depending on winter severity, the annual "January thaw" offers a brief, welcome reprieve for a few days in late January. While never guaranteed, the phenomenon creates a brief yet important window of opportunity for wildlife - even insects!

Chipmunks awaken to wander short distances in search of food to replenish winter stores. When a cement-like snowpack softens, turkeys and deer more easily scratch to reach hidden acorns or green plants including lichens and moss. Predators and prey actively travel to hunt and forage and without burning as many calories during similar activity in colder temperatures. Food calories obtained can exceed heat calories lost in those pursuits.

Increased bird and squirrel activity near backyard birdfeeders provides happy hunting for hungry owls and bobcats. Wild and domestic honey bees make cleansing flights at temperatures above 50 F to eliminate wastes. 

Beekeepers call these winter flights "suicide flights" as many bees don't return to the hive alive if caught in cold pockets or stranded by the rapidly setting sun. Hunting coyotes drive deer onto treacherous thin ice. Smaller, solitary foxes trot along rocky shorelines hunting mice and voles. Tracks on ice reveal the importance of temporarily frozen lakes and ponds.

If winter rains reach impermeable frozen soil beneath the insulating snowpack, rodent tunnels may flood, spoiling seeds and nuts cached in subterranean chambers and driving many more mice indoors to dry basements and attics.

A brief thaw is helpful. But too much of a warm spell wreaks havoc with the wildlife well-adapted to a "good old fashioned New England winter."