MANHATTAN, Kan. -- When January's inches-deep snow persisted for weeks across parts of the United States, life-and-death dramas began playing out in back yards and city parks, as well as back forties and national grasslands.

The winter weather's impact on wildlife is still emerging and could continue to expand with each new snowfall.

In western Kansas, for example, January's slow-melting burden of banked snow revealed piles of pheasant feathers, plus a few undamaged bird corpses. Predators or exposure to blizzard-level winds and ice can be fatal. But, some of the colorful game birds had just been unable to scratch their way through to food. They'd first used up their body fat and then frozen or starved to death.

"That's when I started getting phone calls," said Charlie Lee, wildlife specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. "Given this year's weather patterns, people were wondering whether they should start helping vulnerable wildlife get through the winter. At the same time, they were worried about whether interfering with nature might do more harm than good."

Those questions have no scientific answers, he said. In icy-snowy winters, however, they can emerge again and again - with each storm worsening the odds for at-risk wildlife by eroding their ability to cope, particularly where they have less than optimal habitat.

Hard winters also can lead to what animal experts call "secondary losses" -- females that are in unusually weak condition for their breeding season, so produce fewer and less viable eggs and offspring.

"In contrast, one species you almost never need to worry about is coyotes. Whenever they're in really bad environmental conditions, they respond by increasing their hunting area. If their population gets low, they compensate by having larger litters - which somehow have an unusually high survival rate, too," Lee said.

His particular concern this winter is Kansas' game birds (pheasants, quail and turkeys), because they don't fly away from bad weather. They can't hibernate or enter torpor until the weather improves, as snakes, prairie dogs and hummingbirds do. They can't use a deep, lasting snow cover to their advantage, as many rodents do.

Lee knew the game birds were in trouble several weeks before he started getting calls. He could see it from his pickup, while driving the state's highways.

"The first sign that lingering snow cover is having damaging effects is often birds' gathering where it's not safe for them to be -- typically, next to the highways," he said. "Yes, traffic kills a lot of game birds. Vehicle noise alone is usually enough to keep them away.

"But, highways get cleared after snow storms, giving hungry quail and pheasants access to food."

No research has ever found that feeding wildlife during severe winters can have a major positive impact on their population, Lee said. Feeding deer has actually led to expanding, rather than maintaining a herd's size. That, in turn, has created ideal conditions for disease outbreaks.

"But, feeding might have an impact on a local flock of game birds, allowing its members to survive in a little better condition for breeding," he said. "That could be important to folks who enjoy sharing their space with these birds and those who make part of their living through fee hunting."

Unless handled very carefully, however, the feeding may also create new problems.

"The worst thing you can do is to put out one big pile of corn or milo in a yard or field. That encourages birds to congregate, away from shelter. Predators of every kind will see this as an open invitation to dinner," Lee warned.

The best places for supplemental feed are those that can provide winter cover for the birds, yet are easy to monitor for when to provide more.

"You need to think in terms of what's good winter habitat for them. It could be a mature shelterbelt or windbreak, a thicket, or a shrubby border planting," Lee said. "Then you should spread the grain out there, preferably over at least an acre."

No placement will guarantee that mice, squirrels, rabbits and the like won't also take advantage of the free grain, he said. Any placement could also bring nearby woody plants to the attention of nature's nibbling, gnawing wildlife. Rabbits' gnawing, in particular, can actually girdle and kill a shrub or tree.

But, such possibilities are simply more factors that complicate any decision on whether to feed game birds when Mother Nature is too harsh to allow for good survival rates, Lee said.

SOURCE: K-State Research and Extension news release.