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February 28, 2014

Animals' behavior a sign of wild winter

The Daily Star

---- — When I grew up, winter was much different.

If we got a foot of snow, the schools and businesses never closed, because a storm like that was merely called flurries. Boy, have things ever changed.

This winter has been one for the records. We’ve gone from sub-zero temperatures with loads of snow one day to 50 degrees and sunny the next. Heck, even the animals are confused.

Dan Baker, who lives off Route 28 at the very bottom of Franklin Mountain, contacted me the other day with some very interesting observations. On Dec. 22, he was out walking his dog in the evening. It was dark, so he had a flashlight. As he walked across the lawn, he looked down. The grass was covered with night crawlers. Yeah, earthworms right there next to snow banks. And in December of all things.

On Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, there was a flock of robins on his lawn. No, it wasn’t just a bird or two. He said there were between 40 and 50 of them. Where the heck did they come from? Maybe they were looking for night crawlers.

My wife works nights at Covidien in Hobart. On the way home Jan. 11 at 7 a.m. a woodchuck sat on the yellow line of the state highway just before the bridge as you come into West Oneonta. I’m not sure why he was there, unless he was doing a little scouting for his cousin Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. Actually, he was probably flooded out of his den because of the heavy rain and warm, wet weather.

Within the last couple of weeks a black bear was out of his den wandering around in knee-deep snow over in the Stamford area. Aren’t they supposed to be sleeping all winter? When I lived up in the Adirondacks, the old-timers told me they saw bears out in the winter quite often. They said it was usually the old boars that woke up and just wandered around for a while.

So if the animals have no idea what is happening, how do we know? Animals usually know. Deer will feed in the fields before a storm. Geese usually fly south as cold weather approaches. Their habits are often governed by the weather.

But this year is different. While we’re shivering and freezing our butts off here in upstate New York, Alaska has had some record warm days. I talked with a woman the other day who is a pilot and flies freight into the distant, back-country villages of Alaska. She told me in many areas, there’s not even snow on the ground. Many of the lakes and rivers never even froze this year. The bears never went into hibernation. Eleven thousand years ago, 200 feet of ice sat right there.

The Finger Lakes and even Otsego Lake were carved out by the southern flow. That melted back long before man burned coal and drove cars. The earth is ever changing. We will have cold winters and hot summers, and sometimes warm winters and cool summers. And every once in a while we’ll have a mixture.

After all, weather is a finicky thing.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him