The Cruelest Month
by Bob Engel, Marlboro College Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
In his epic poem, The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot termed April the cruelest month. Not in my book; not for the rest of nature. Nope, that honor belongs to March.
For humans living in the “temperate” north, April brings special challenges because we are so sick of winter that we are ready to scream. This neurosis is not shared by other animals who don’t wander about dreaming of a string of 70 degree days, but are busy trying to find enough food to survive. As the saying goes, all the “low hanging” fruit is gone. All the branches have been scoured repeatedly for spider egg masses or hibernating pupae; all of last fall’s fruit has been gone for months; all the seeds in disintegrating seed pods have fallen; and all the frozen flesh on carcasses has been gnawed off by those inclined to do so. Further, substantial mortality has reduced the number of weaker, easily caught animals. This “pruning” has left mostly vigorous, harder-to-catch potential prey. There is little or no free lunch; in fact, there is hardly any lunch at all.
How do I know this? Well, I admit that a lot of my evidence is circumstantial, for example, the only time that I have seen fishers at my suet feeder was near the end of March, Vermont Fish and Game is now (mid-March) warning us to take our bird feeders in at night to protect them from ravenous bears. Last year, mine was “attacked” at the end of, yes, March. And, if we looked, I’d bet that most animals have increased dietary breadth to compensate for the slim pickings.
There are also some neat biochemical tricks that can start to get at this issue in more precise ways. The first I heard of it was with bison in Yellowstone National Park. What has that got to do with Vermont? Not much, but it’s a lot easier to sample Pleistocene cows in herds than chase around after singleton moose and deer here in the east.
All the researchers had to do was collect a urine sample from the bison. It’s easy…that yellow spot over there. So what’s in the urine? A lot of things, but there’s a chemical called creatinine that leaves the body that way. Creatinine spikes in the blood as the bison start to consume themselves instead of the remnants of the grass that they normally eat by swinging their massive heads back and forth to clear the snow. Because they’re often in big herds, they go through this resource over the winter. Then what? Just like us in a similar situation, they lose weight by digesting portions of themselves. After they go through any fat, they start on the precious muscle. When that happens, creatinine appears in higher concentrations in the urine. When do they start digesting the really important bits out there? March.
In theory, maybe in a so-called deer yard, a similar methodology might be used. There are certainly pellets there. They might tell of similar events, or at least contain increasing (?) levels of stress hormones. Certainly here in Marlboro the annual cloven onslaught has begun: tracks in the garden and small herds in the field in front of the house. My least favorite pest is back at it.
April, especially during a so-called omega (weather) block, can make me foam at the mouth. But from somebody else’s perspective, things are finally starting to look up. Herbs are sprouting in wetlands and other open places. Overwintering arthropods are increasingly on the move and more easily located. The first amphibians are heading to their reproductive pools, and a lot more stuff is exposed by any receding snow. So these critters, sensing a potential smorgasbord, don’t care about that week of gray that drives me utterly crazy.