Bats, birds among wildlife pummeled during Southern freeze

DALLAS (AP) - With many people in the southern United States home to neighbors who had neither heat nor water during the fierce February storm and freezing, Kate Rugroden provided refuge for shell-shocked bats.
Starved and disoriented, the winged mammals tumbled to the snow-covered ground as temperatures plummeted to levels rarely seen in the region.
"They burned their energy reserves trying to wake up and escape the cold and ice," said Rugroden of Arlington, Texas, one of the many rehabilitation specialists who tended to stranded bats that were plucked by friendly people. There are no insects to eat yet. "
Bats are among the numerous wildlife that are believed to have been struck in the south, an area unused to such a severe and prolonged cold snap. Many species move there into winter precisely because of the normally mild weather.
It may take weeks or months to determine the extent of the damage, but signs are already there - including dead robins on yards and sidewalks.
Alligators in Oklahoma's Red Slough Wildlife Management Area have been photographed with snouts sticking out of frozen waterways - a survival maneuver that allows them to breathe while their bodies rest to conserve energy.
Fish deaths were feared in Arkansas and Louisiana. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said it expected losses in exotic deer and antelope. On the Gulf coast from Mexico to Florida, naturalists were concerned about monarch butterflies and the vital milkweed plants as they prepared to migrate north.
"Animals can respond to events like this by moving to another location, but if they're out of your flight or walking range, you'll need to crouch," said Perry Barboza, wildlife biologist at Texas A&M University. “Some animals like little birds can only do this for a night or two. Duration becomes a killer. "
Sea turtles that were stunned by the cold coastal waters of the Gulf were cared for in facilities this week. More than 10,600 were found and officials tabulated how many died, said Donna Shaver, Texas coordinator for the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network.
Sea Turtle Inc. has taken in so many that it used the South Padre Island Convention Center to make up for the overflow, said managing director Wendy Knight.
"Our hospital is completely filled to the gills now," Knight said.
Fish kills along the Texan coast were expected for recreational favorites like spotted sea trout and red drums. In Louisiana, officials said it could take a week for dead fish to wash ashore.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission warned anglers to anticipate the death of threadfin shades, a major food source for marine species such as perch, pikeperch and crappie.
While extreme weather is especially dangerous for endangered species, the federal government-classified whooping crane appears to have weathered the storm, said Joe Saenz, manager of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
Approximately 500 of the majestic birds spend the winters in the refuge before returning to the Canadian nesting sites. During the cold spell, some have been spotted attaching themselves to dead fish that swam in the Gulf waters.
Biologists are concerned about monarch butterflies, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated as candidates for endangered or threatened status in December due to a sharp decline in recent decades.
The largest population of monarchs overwinters in the Mexican mountains and begins migrating north in March. If the cold had happened a few weeks later, the orange and black butterflies could have been devastated, said Ray Moranz, a scientist from Oklahoma.
You still couldn't get away unharmed. Some usually spend winters on the Gulf Coast, where their chances of doing so during freezing were slim, said Moranz of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Another potential threat is milkweed, which gives female monarchs the opportunity to lay eggs and food for their larvae. If the growth of the plants in the south were slowed down, more young would not survive.
This situation underscores a threat to wildlife across the region: even those who made it through the frost may see habitat degradation and less food.
In South Texas, bur clover, a winter herb that was vital to deer in the spring, showed frost blight.
In the long term, the biggest concerns are birds and bats, both of which had absorbed heavy blows before the storm.
Breeding bird populations in the US and Canada have declined nearly 30 percent in the past 50 years - mainly due to habitat loss. The spring population numbers will be the first clue how many have succumbed to the cold, said Barboza of Texas A&M.
Migratory birds don't bother to fatten for the winter because there is plenty of food in the south, he said. During the storm, many likely burned their meager energy reserves and died of exhaustion. About 20 dead brown pelicans have been found on the Texan island of Chester.
"They are concerned about snow-covered food sources - seeds and berries - and a reduction in insect life," said Ben Jones, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, who found five dead birds in his garden last weekend. Robins, thrushes, hermit thrush, and gray catfowl were among the types most affected, he said.
Frozen songbirds have also been spotted on streets in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where temperatures dropped to minus 13 degrees last week.
Bats have their own challenges, including a fungal disease called white nose syndrome, which has killed millions of people. To those struggling to save them, every bat is precious. They eat large numbers of insects that consume agricultural crops and transmit diseases.
"We're seeing a lot of population damage," said Rugroden, the rehabilitation specialist, including migratory bats arriving from Mexico. A well-known colony that lives on a Houston bridge appears to have suffered great losses.
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Flesher reported from Traverse City, Michigan.

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