Winter floodwaters just ducky for Ohio’s wildlife
American black ducks
While winter floods have left many Ohioans with basements full of water or worse, the state’s wildlife appear to be doing just fine, despite the overabundance of precipitation a seemingly amazing feat, considering the recent record rainfalls we’ve experienced.
These floods, however, illustrate wildlife’s adaptability and resilience to nature’s occasional disruptions.
Fish, for example, are minimally impacted by rushing waters brought on by snow melt and heavy rains. “A number of fish species migrate with rising water,” according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) fisheries biologist Phil Hillman. “Those in reservoirs simply swim out into the river or tail waters below.” He notes that walleye, sauger and saugeye (a sauger/walleye cross) are especially adept at migrating under high-water conditions.
Perhaps the greatest “danger” that fish face is getting trapped in culverts or ditches as the floodwaters recede. When that happens, they become easy meals for a variety of birds and mammals.
Of course, given that water is the natural habitat for fish, it’s no surprise they don’t get too stirred up when flooding occurs, but what about wetland mammals, such as otters, beavers and muskrats?
“Otters are pretty nomadic creatures,” explains Chris Dwyer, a wetland wildlife biologist with the ODNR. “When waterways flood, they simply move to fringe areas on higher ground.” He explains that otters can go for several days without food. On the other hand, flooding definitely impacts beavers and muskrats since their diet consists largely of vegetation growing in and around their lake, stream or marsh-edge homes.
Beavers can survive on bark and twigs.
Beavers do have an advantage in that they can survive on the bark and twigs of softwood trees, such as poplar, maple and cottonwood. Muskrats, however, rely more on aquatic vegetation, such as cattail roots. They also are vulnerable to predation. Otters will eat muskrats when other foods, such as fish, frogs and crayfish are unavailable.
Another interesting note, beaver lodges are so well built that most can withstand the torrent of floodwaters.
Did you know that when push comes to shove, just about all wildlife can swim even such an unlikely species as the wild turkey?!
How about this for being unflustered by floods: the massasauga rattlesnake, which often spends the winter holed up in a crayfish burrow, is likely to be submerged in water for weeks at a time anyway. “Floodwaters are probably no big deal to them or other snakes that spend the winter underground,” says Ohio snake ecologist, Doug Wynn. Lucky for the snakes, these floodplain burrows are deep enough to prevent the water from freezing.
A variety of Ohio’s wild animals have little to worry about when the floodwaters flow. White-tailed deer, wild turkey, and upland game such as pheasants and rabbits have no problem staying high and dry during such troublesome times.
As you might expect, other species that do well when flooding occurs include wintering waterfowl, such as black ducks and mallards. These flexible flyers happily move into flooded farm fields where they dine on leftover crops and other vegetation.
Birds clearly have the greatest advantage in high-water situations, as they can easily fly away to safer territory. “Since this is not the nesting season, many birds have little to lose,” says Amanda Rodewald, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at The Ohio State University. It’s the spring floods, she explains, that have the greatest impact on birds and other wildlife as it is a time of preparing for and rearing of offspring.
From an ecological stand point, floods can have a positive impact on the environment. They aid in seed dispersal as well as deposit nutrient-rich sediments onto the floodplain, which nourishes the soil used by plants, animals and farmers.
There’s no getting around the fact that floods can be destructive forces, yet it’s reassuring to know that Ohio’s wildlife can successfully survive such unexpected rigors of nature.