Cure for Cabin Fever

Surviving Mountain Winters
Coyote on the winter prowl
Winter is merciless in the mountains of the Northeast. It comes early, settling into the highest peaks by late October and spreading a veil of white farther down the slopes with each passing day. By December the beaver dams are locked tight with ice, the streams thin ribbons of dark water between banks of white. The birds have fled, save for the hardiest species such as the gray jays and the ravens; the moose and deer have retreated to the thickets, and the coyotes and foxes are already searching out the season's victims, those killed off by too much cold and too little to eat.

Food is where you find it in winter, and the spruce grouse finds it in the branches of the conifers it lives among. From first snow to final thaw, the grouse feeds almost exclusively on the buds and needles of spruce and other softwoods—a waxy, high-cellulose, nutrient-poor diet that requires much digestion, so much that the grouse's intestinal tract enlarges considerably each winter to squeeze the last bit of nourishment from the food. The bird moves from tree to tree on feet that have sprouted snowshoes: elongated toe scales that grow in a fringe, spreading the grouse's weight and allowing it to walk rather than flounder.

For most of the region's winter residents, the season's biggest danger is not cold but starvation. A moose is so thoroughly insulated from the cold that it may actually become too warm, even on a subzero day, if it is forced into prolonged movement. The undercoat is thick and woolly, trapping a layer of air, a theme repeated by the layer of hollow guard-hairs, each of which acts like a thermos bottle to seal in body warmth.

But if there is not enough fuel for the internal fires, then all the insulation in the world is worthless. If heavy snows continue through most of the winter, deer are unable to move freely, and the traditional "yards," where they gather, become overbrowsed. The youngest and weakest go first, but none escape the debilitating effects.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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