Local creatures are having a picnic in this warm winter weather. But as this week's sudden freeze-up reminds us, it doesn't take much to mess up nature's delicate balance.
White-tailed deer These delicate beauties are enjoying their best winter in years. Usually they have to stay in groups to conserve energy and stay warm. This year's lack of snow has made foraging for food -- and avoiding predators like coyotes -- a snap.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: These voracious herbivores tend to be their own worst enemies, eating everything they can get their snouts on and leaving little for tougher times. Vegetation is blooming out of season, but a sudden cold snap could quickly ruin their food supply.
Coyotes These scavengers inhabit many of Toronto's ravines, where they feed on rodents. Lack of snow cover undoubtedly makes these easier to catch.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: They also rely heavily on dead deer, of which there are few because of warm weather. As a result, coyotes are forced to range farther than usual. This may explain increased reports of dead cats in and around High Park.
Snowshoe hares Unlike their European counterparts, these furry creatures nest above-ground, relying for protection on the camouflage afforded by their white coats and their ability to remain motionless.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: With the lack of snow cover, they're spending more energy avoiding coyotes, foxes and hawks and less on chewing their usual diet of twigs, bushes and tree bark.
Hawks Meadow voles (above-ground rodents) make up 90 per cent of these majestic birds' diet.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: With this year's lack of snow cover in wooded areas, they're chowing down like crazy. A sudden crust of ice, though, would make sensing the movements of voles nearly impossible.
Hawks inhabiting more built-up areas, like the pair nesting near Queen's Park, have taken to new prey, especially pigeons and squirrels, which have become more active in the warmer weather.
Snowy owls Keen hunters, they migrate from the Arctic and feed primarily on rodents.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: They nest on the ground and rely on snow, so far absent this year, for camouflage. Lack of snow makes hunting their preferred quarry -- non-white hares -- more difficult.
Red foxes Winter is a crucial time for these golf-course dwellers. They usually take extreme measures to conserve energy -- sleeping during the day, avoiding deep snow, walking with the wind.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: Rodents, their staple, may be in good supply, but foxes also mate at this time of year, narrowing their range to as little as one and a half miles and so reducing sources of food.
Raccoons They usually go into a state of semi-hibernation in winter.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: The Ministry of Natural Resources reports increased activity and roadkills because of warmer weather, increasing the potential for the spread of diseases like rabies to animals feeding on their carcasses.
Opossums One of the clearest indications that global warming's taken hold in southern Ontario is the rapid increase in the opossum population, particularly in the western part of the GTA.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: Individual opossums range across as much as 50 acres and may be eating into the food supply of raccoons and skunks.
Canada Geese Lack of freezing provides open water and areas to forage for food at water's edge.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: The plentiful supply of zebra mussels encourages literally hundreds of thousands of other water fowl, particularly diving ducks, to winter in the Great Lakes. Fewer are making the perilous migration south. Even species not native to North America, like harlequin ducks, are able to survive in High Park, mostly because people feed them.
House sparrows Their rapid metabolism forces these little creatures to eat constantly to stay warm. Ditto for other common bird species like robins and jays.
TIPPING THE BALANCE: Dry winter conditions over the last three years may be messing with the food supply of species that rely on insects. Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie and local naturalists report dwindling numbers of most of the 20 to 30 species of birds present in winter.
Sources: Kortright Centre, Long Point Bird Observatory, Ministry of Natural Resources and A Guide To Nature In Winter, by Donald W. Stokes