Winter survival, the wildlife way

Just as humans alter their behavior for the chilly winter months, so do the wildlife at APG. | U.S. Army photo by Rachel Ponder, APG News

As Soldiers and civilians change their behaviors and activities in the chilly winter months, so to do the wildlife here at APG.

Rich in natural resources, the proving ground is home to several native Maryland plants and animals; often in greater numbers and diversity than many locations in the rapidly urbanized Chesapeake Bay landscape.

The natural habitats maintained at APG not only support realistic military training and testing missions, now and into the future, but they also have many lessons to teach us about sustainability and year-round survival.

How do local plants and animals adapt to survive the challenging winter months along the windy and icy Bay?

As we gathered firewood in the fall, the familiar squirrels gathered acorns. As we dug out winter coats and hats, mammals’ fur changed and birds’ plumage adjusted.

The male American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis for example got fatter (one excuse for over-indulging over the holidays). They also developed drabber feathers for the winter, like some of us human dads; bright colors are not a good idea for evading predators in a drab winter landscape.

Fair-weather couples like the House Wrens packed their bags and headed south before Christmas, maybe to a tree cavity condo in Texas or Mexico. Amphibians and reptiles went into deep sleep underground or under the mud. Fish migrated to deeper freeze-free waters; our prized rockfish Morone saxatilis headed to the Virginia and Carolina Capes. Other fish slowed their metabolism and remain active under the ice, like the mummichog “mud minnow” sometimes spotted by amazed ice-skaters.

Some critters with the Army spirit, including some tougher wren cousins of the House Wren, are able to toughen up and adjust to the more challenging conditions for winter food supply and shelter. For the proud American Bald Eagle, chilly December and January is the time of year to start getting cozy and to start a family, even without a fireplace and egg nog. The new parent eagles will keep the eggs warm in their tree-top nest during chilly March and feed the hatchlings in the nest in April.

The Northern Red Oak tree here at APG is a species that can live 500 years and provides both food and shelter year-round for numerous vertebrate and invertebrate species.

Red Oaks must be 25-50 years old before they can produce abundant crops of acorns to feed wildlife and sustain our forests with natural regrowth. The acorns are eaten not only by squirrels but also deer, turkey, quail, woodpeckers, foxes (and black bears if they are present). Butterflies, moths and other insects also use the acorns or leaves of the red oak. DPW manages about 18,000 acres of forests at APG that include the important red oak.

Dead trees can be as important as live trees for winter survival of wildlife. If you are outside on a winter evening and here something that sounds like “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?” and it isn’t your spouse, it may be Mrs. Barred Owl who lives in a dead tree cavity that was abandoned by other animals. APG meadows and wetlands provide her family with a variety of victuals that include voles, birds, frogs, crayfish and large insects.

When the cabin fever sets in this winter, look through your frosted window and enjoy the wildlife that seem to survive the chill with all groceries and housing provided by Mother Nature’s resources here in the forests, meadows, waterways, and wetlands of APG.

APG natural resources managers have a long history of continually coordinating the natural infrastructure stewardship that supports and sustains the Army’s testing and training mission every day. Working with partners from APG tenant organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, APG DPW personnel developed and coordinated our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP) as a roadmap to the future for APG natural resources management.

For more information about the natural resources at APG, contact John Wrobel at john.g.wrobel.civ@mail.mil

By John Leader, APG Directorate of Public Works