Our extra-long winter has affected our mood, but humans are not the only South Dakota residents who have had to endure Mother Nature’s unpopular lock on winter.
Long months of snow, wind and cold have altered wildlife patterns.
Canada geese arrived on the scene between snowstorms, ready to pair up and begin nesting. However, they ended up in snow-covered fields, dawdling and looking like they were lost. Imagine your family moving thousands of miles to settle down, but having nowhere to go or live once you arrive.
“Canada geese cannot nest because their nesting sites are still covered with snow in Marshall and Day counties,” said Paul Mammenga, a waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “Weather is causing a delay, but it’s not hurting them bodywise. It’s just delaying the egg-laying process.”
It takes seven to 10 days to lay a clutch of eggs, and in a normal spring, if such a thing exists in South Dakota, the bulk of the Canada goose population would be incubating five to six eggs by April 25. The normal hatching peak occurs roughly 30 days later, which means the typical hatching peak would occur during the second week of May.
“The hatch will be close to June 1 this year,” Mammenga said. “Geese are waiting for nest sites to become available so the process can begin. Clutch sizes may be small, and there will be quite a spread of age of goslings throughout the state. Young pairs might not nest.”
Young Canada geese start to fly at or near 10 weeks of age. Because of the long winter and the late nesting date, that puts the date when young geese start to fly close to the first week of August. They will be young during the annual August management take hunting season, so there will be more flightless birds mixed in with those in the early stages of learning flight.
“Snow geese put fat on when they were here for an extended stay and are in excellent condition,” Mammenga said. Snow geese nest in June on the tundra.
Songbirds have been impacted because of the severe weather, and fatalities occurred around the state.
Brown County conservation officer Nich Cochran said deer looked stressed in March.
“Then we had a few nice days making food and forage available,” he said. “Deer have fared better here, with hardly any winter kill. They look better now because they are able to find food easier.”
There might be some lower fawn birth weights and lower reproduction than normal, he said.
“Deer suffered a little loss, but not what you’d expect for as rough as it was,” said Grant County conservation officer Jamie Pekelder. “We are struggling with loss of habitat. Where there is habitat, there are deer.”
The coyote population seems to be quite healthy, but mange increased some.
“Mange is Mother Nature’s way of cleaning things up,” Cochran said.
“Skunks are now coming out and about,” he added. “Skunk and raccoon populations are high, with one reason being there is not the amount of trapping as there used to be.”
Because of reduced habitat due to low water levels, the muskrat population is down.
“With water dropping, many muskrats froze out because there was no water in which to survive,” Cochran said. “They had been harvested aggressively and used to reproduce constantly, but now with losing their habitat, they didn’t reproduce.”
Because Brown County did not receive the freezing rain like other parts of the state did, few pheasants were lost here.
“The birds look good as they wintered around farms near feedlots and where there was corn on the ground,” Cochran said. “They made it through very well.”
Pekelder witnessed an unusual event recently.
“I watched 15 grouse dancing on top of the snow, the first lek I’ve seen in eastern South Dakota,” he said. “With loud chirps, feet stomping and dancing, it was fun to watch. Two males were showing off dancing, then stopped, faced each other about 6 inches apart, stared at each other and then went back to dancing.”
South Dakota’s spring wild turkey season opened in mid-April, but according to Pedelker, the turkeys don’t know it’s spring yet.
“Hens and jakes are still bunched up and hanging out together in good-sized flocks,” he said. “It’s hard to call in a tom. The prime time to hunt turkeys will be after the first of May. It’s a later time period, but should work out well. As with all wild animals, they do their thing when they want to do it.”