Wildlife Watch: Vt. critters gear up for winter

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MILTON, Vt. (WCAX) Critters across Vermont are gearing up for winter. So what are they eating and how can you help out in your own backyard?

A team from Vermont Fish and Wildlife took our Keith McGilvery to the Sandbar Wildlife Management Area in Milton to find out.

Keith McGilvery: We are walking through the woods here in Milton. To me it's a bunch of trees and all kinds of stuff, but I don't see all kinds of food for animals. What do you see?

Andrea Shortsleeve / Vt. Fish & Wildlife Biologist: There's a lot of food out here right now for animals. Our wildlife here in Vermont has three different ways of adapting to the changing seasons and the changes in food. One, they can migrate like lots of birds and bats. Two, they can start foraging for nuts and caching them throughout the woods, like squirrels, blue jays, little animals like that. One of those food sources is acorns that squirrels and chipmunks will take off these oak trees and then they'll cache in different places in the woods. And so then the third way that animals deal with changes in food and changes in season is they actually just change what they're eating, so like deer, bear, animals like that will actually change their diet.

Keith McGilvery: As we walk through the woods here and head this way you've already spotted some of the food supply that we've talked about. And here it is, what are we looking at?

Andrea Shortsleeve: Yeah, so this is a beech tree and it's full of beech nuts. So you can see right here and in addition to these nuts, beech trees are a really important wildlife tree. As they die and decay they are great places for animals to excavate cavities, like woodpeckers, which creates homes for other animals like owls. And in high producing trees, bears create nests, even that they climb in and they sit in and they just munch on these beech nuts as much as possible.

Keith McGilvery: And how effective are food sources like this, in kind of getting animals through what they need to get through?

Andrea Shortsleeve: They're really effective. All these nuts that are out in the woods right now are really high in protein and high in fat and so that's what the animals are storing up on this time of year. Earlier in the summer if some of the smaller critters gain a lot of weight and eat a lot of fat that means they're a lot easier for prey animals to get, they're a lot slower. So now during this time of year, they need to build up their food storages and they're fat supplies to get through the winter and these nuts help them do that.

Keith McGilvery: You're a wildlife biologist, why do you think it's important for folks who are watching at home to be cognizant of what is out there and what our animals need to be eating and need to be finding?

Andrea Shortsleeve: Well, you know, knowing where animals are gonna be and what they're eating is a really easy way to view wildlife if people are interested in that. And then on people's property managing for these types of food is really important. 80% of Vermont is privately owned and so we really rely on the private land owner to create habitat and provide good places for our wildlife to eat.

Keith McGilvery: Dave, when we talk about land management as it pertains to kind of making sure our critters get all the food that we need, here in Milton you actually like what you see here, why's that?

Dave Adams/Vt. Fish & Wildlife Habitat Specialist: Absolutely, what I'm seeing right here is a very nice red oak that has been daylighted through some harvesting activity to give the tips of the branches lots of sunlight, that's where the trees produce the nuts, that's what needs to be exposed to the sun for pollination and production and it's something that landowners can do to help manage their land because a lot of the byproduct that you see is firewood, it could be brush piles not to mention the secondary habitat that regenerates for birds, butterflies, and all sorts of other critters. So the more the owners can daylight these mass producing stems, the more production they'll have and the more benefit they'll have.

Keith McGilvery: So as we continue that conversation and take it from here out in the woods to somebody's own backyard, it sounds like there are some real tangible things that people can do whether they have, you know, trees this big or they're dealing with stuff that's smaller.

Dave Adams: Totally, any sort of cutting in the woods to help propagate one stem over the other, especially these high value, mass producing stems, the oaks the beeches, the mountain ashes and the apples, really helps benefit the wildlife and the overall habitat. Cutting the tree is often ringing the dinner bell for a lot of wildlife. It creates a lot of young habitat as sunlight now hits the forest floor but again it daylights our crowns of our important trees allowing them to produce more nuts. And again, the ancillary benefit is the wildlife value, but oftentimes we're cutting trees that have great firewood value, so a landowner can fill their woodshed and open up and produce more mass at the same time.

Keith McGilvery: So much of Vermont is owned by private landowners, what responsibility do we have here to get this right?

Dave Adams: I think everybody has the responsibility to manage their land and just become more informed with what it is. And that management can be as simple as, hey, I daylight one apple tree or I trim my invasive species out or I just let my lawn go for pollinator habitat. Anything that the landowner can do that's a little different than they're already doing is something that's going to benefit the wildlife out there.

Pine cones can be a food source too-- often a last option for animals but they will actually dig into the cone to get the seeds inside. Shortsleeve and Adams say they are ready to help if you have questions about land management in Vermont.

Contact:
Dave Adams
Essex Junction Office, 802-879-2330, dave.adams@vermont.gov

Andrea Shortsleeve
Barre Office, 802-479-4439, andrea.shortsleeve@vermont.gov