The drought's winners and losers: Region's critters suffer, too

2012-07-27T03:00:00Z 2013-08-16T22:25:14Z The drought's winners and losers: Region's critters suffer, tooBY LES WINKELER, The Southern The Southern
July 27, 2012 3:00 am  • 

The summer-long drought and heat wave gripping Southern Illinois has had varied effects on wildlife.

“Overall there are winners and losers,” said Bob Bluett, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity coordinator. “I came past a pond on my way to work this morning that had a fish kill. The vultures were, of course, feasting. The wading birds were getting the little fish that were still alive. The shorebirds were enjoying the mud flats. They were all thinking this wasn’t so bad.

“On the other end of the spectrum, you have muskrats that will definitely be at a disadvantage. Some of the creeks are dry or dried enough they are exposed to predators. On the longer term though, we’ve had all the wetlands have been filled to the brim for the last three years. This dry period will allow them to pull back and reconsolidate the bottom and get some vegetation in there.”

Migratory songbirds might be some of the biggest losers.

Jeff Hoover, an avian ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said the drought and heat have been devastating for prothonotary warblers. Hoover has been studying the the prothonotary warblers in the region for two decades.

“It’s (the drought) put a big dent in the small caterpillar populations which is kind of the bread and butter food for these nestlings,” Hoover said. “They’re getting less water and calories simultaneously. If there is less insect food, the adults have to spend more time looking for it. When it’s exceptionally hot, adult birds can transfer heat away from the nestlings by sitting on top of them with their brood patch.”

Nest monitoring this summer shows 37 percent of nests have failed. That compares with 22 percent in 2010, the last year final data has been compiled.

And, that could have long-term effects.

“The breeding is shutting down about a month earlier this year,” Hoover said. “The birds kind of recognize there just isn’t enough food. They’ve tried and tried twice, but it doesn’t really pay for them to invest the energy right now.”

In the meantime, reptiles and amphibians have their own way of coping.

“They are going subterranean to stay as moist and cool as they can,” said Scott Ballard, a herpetologist with the IDNR.

As far as the lack of free-standing water, Ballard said snakes and turtles get most of their water from the foods they eat. However, the dry conditions could have hamper reproduction of snakes and turtles.

“Things like turtle eggs and snake eggs need some kind of humidity to hatch,” Ballard said. “If the females haven’t put those eggs somewhere where it’s really moist, they could actually dessicate.”

And, while the heat may cause forest mammals to be uncomfortable, Bluett said they will find food and water.

“The succulence of the vegetation probably isn’t as important as its availability, but this is Illinois,” Bluett said. “We have lots of corn. We are seeing more damage to crops than we’ve seen in past years. The soybeans haven’t had a chance to grow past the deer damage.

“A lot of times, free-standing water, deer have the choice of moving around. They’re going to go there for the temperature benefit as well as the availability of water. The other animals can generally get by without a lot of free-standing water.”

Most animals are able to adapt to the conditions.

“These animals have adapted over the course of time to tolerate it,” Bluett said. “Our weather records go back 200 years. These animals go back 200,000 years.”

les.winkeler@thesouthern.com / 618-351-5088

Copyright 2015 The Southern. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Les Winkeler

Les Winkeler

Les Winkeler is the Sports Editor and Outdoors Reporter for the Southern Illinoisan. He can be reached at 618.351.5088 

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