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How has this unusually warm winter impacted local bird populations?


This has been an unusually warm winter.

That’s impacted bird populations that normally migrate to avoid bitterly cold weather.

In anaverage winter, Minocqua can easily see 110 inches of snow in a season.

According to totals from the National Weather Service, the Rhinelander area has only seen 23.1 inches of snow this season.

This winter has been anything but average.

The Northwoods has seen so little snow this winter that snowmobile trails have been unable to open, dragging the local economy down.

While it is an El Niño winter, we’ve never seen such an extreme season.

This is David Drake, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist from UW-Madison.

“We have had a couple of things going on. So we have the underlying issue of climate change happening and so we are seeing warmer winters to begin with because of climate change,” he said.

That lack of snow doesn’t just impact people, it also affects the regional wildlife.

Many bird species in Wisconsin are migratory, relying on the amount of sunlight in a day as a signal of weather pattern changes.

Some are irruptive migrators, meaning that some years they travel South and other years they don’t depending on temperatures and food availability.

“From a bird standpoint, the food is accessible because it's not being buried under snow and food that normally would not be accessible is this year without that snow cover,” said Drake.

Not migrating saves birds the energy a long trip requires and allows them to get a head start on breeding seasons.

“I think what a lot of people are expecting from a climate change standpoint is as the winter starts warming, you're gonna see maybe some range shifts, where species that typically would be further south, they might start moving further north latitudinally. And so you may see some species expansion in terms of latitudinal growth going north,” said Drake.

"I think there's a lot of questions about these, about climate change, and what species are going to kind of be winners and what species are going to be losers,” he said.

Bird populations with greater access to food during warmer winters end up with higher survival rates, making them climate change ‘winners’.

In cold snaps, Drake says he hears a lot of concern from people about birds adjusting to temperature changes.

“Typically, as long as the cold spell is relatively short lived, and again, as long as we don't have snow or ice down on the ground, and that food is accessible to birds that they can survive that relatively brief cold spell without any issue at all,” said Drake.

If food is covered for extended periods by snow, then bird populations are more threatened, which is why many normally migrate.

Hannah Davis-Reid is a WXPR Reporter.
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