The warmer-than-average December in Vermont is prompting unusual behavior from wildlife, and inspiring new suggestions from the state's Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Much of normally-chilly Vermont has seen several days lately where the temperature reached at least 50 degrees, around 10 degrees above average. Mark Scott, the department's wildlife director, said that mild stretch has left bears still awake, and not going into their dens for their deep winter sleep.
"They're still wandering around," Scott said of Vermont's bears. "They belong back in the woods, not in someone's backyard."
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Scott told necn the department has heard of a surprising uptick in sightings of bears in people's backyards, particularly in the Rutland area and in southern Vermont. Those bears, he said, are likely foraging for nuts or apples, but also looking to turn garbage cans or bird feeders into their personal buffets if they have the opportunity.
That has wildlife biologists at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department now urging homeowners to delay putting out bird seed, to reduce the chances of attracting roaming bears.
"The problem with [putting out bird seed now] is not just the meal [bears] get that day, but they become habituated to it, and they learn, 'That's the best place to get a great high-caloric, high-energy type of food source,'" Scott explained.
Scott said other wild animals may be experiencing impacts from the mild weather, pointing to the snowshoe hare as one example. He said the hare turns white at the start of winter, coinciding with the loss of daylight hours. The change, believed to help the animal blend in with snow to help it hide from predators, may only be making it a target for hawks or owls, Scott said, because Vermont’s lack of snow cover means its white coloring would now stand out on the landscape.
However, other animals are surely seeing benefits from the unusually warm and snowless weather, said Chip Darmstadt of the North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier.
After Darmstadt looked through his binoculars at a bald eagle soaring above the nature center, he said, "Just like for us, this weather's pretty comfortable and makes life a little easier."
He said in the case of bald eagles, there is no ice on the water where the eagles go fishing, likely helping them find meals.
Darmstadt agreed with Scott, suggesting homeowners save their bird seed until the cold air and significant snow finally arrive. That is when the birds probably could use more help, anyway, they indicated.
"We suggest waiting for six or more inches of snow that lasts before putting out your bird feeders, especially if you have been visited in the past by bears or if there are sightings of bears in your neighborhood," bear biologist Forrest Hammond said in a Vermont Fish & Wildlife news release. "Due to lack of snow and frozen ground, birds are able to forage in fields and forests for their natural foods."
The Fish & Wildlife department said surveys have shown feeding birds and watching wildlife are popular with Vermonters. A 2011 federal survey revealed that people spend more than $280-million annually to watch wildlife in the state. Feeding birds at home is considered the primary wildlife watching activity, the department said.