The Muddy Month of March

by Jim Eagleman

As I was condensing our family’s slide trays I came upon an image with several pairs of boots and shoes in a pile outside our front door—all different sizes and caked with wet or dry mud. It was obvious that a family with youngsters lived there. The slide tray was simply labeled “March.”

When I recall the times when our boys were young—and it seems I do that a lot now—I remember encouraging them to go outdoors. Long afternoons were interspersed with snacks, books, and naps. Then after naps we dressed them in little coats, hats, and mittens and went for walks. Even when the ground was frozen they managed to come back with muddy boots. The warmer it got, the muddier the boots.

During our nature talks at the park, we mention the muddy month of March as a “last ditch effort” for many animals. If they made it this far, we say they can probably make it to “green-up.” Well, maybe. Plant nibblers like deer and rabbits may have the toughest time, faced with a nearly depleted larder. A late spring storm can spell doom for the hungriest.

When I started my job many winters ago, I looked from the Nature Center window and saw the state deer biologist jump in his DNR truck to drive through an opened gate. I saw him wave and head off into deep snow with the only vehicle allowed back in the empty campgrounds. A few days later, I introduced myself to the man, John Olson. He invited me along on his next outing. His job that time of year was to examine any dead deer he came upon to determine how they died. Most deer died of starvation.

I had learned from a class that deer create fat reserves stored in bone marrow and its color can tell you a lot. The fat may be all they live on until roughage improves. If the marrow is white and chalky, the deer was in good health at the time of death. John looked further for wounds or broken legs. If the marrow was red and gelatinous, it was a sign of poor nutrition. He was just as anxious as my professor to show me what a deer’s cracked femur looked like on the inside. We saw a lot of deer that day, some ran off with white tails swaying, some stood and watched, and some were dead. We also saw a lot of heavily-browsed plants with branch tips the diameter of pencils.

Gardeners will tell you that rose bushes neatly snipped at a 45 degree angle mean rabbits have been there. Chewed tips left jagged indicate deer. John and I inspected a greenbrier shrub with clean tips nearly four feet off the ground.

“Good grief, giant rabbits!” I yelled. John reminded me the snow had melted in the last several days, and a little ramp up to the shrub had disappeared. “I know,” I said, “just kidding.”

Brown County’s total annual rainfall is about 40 inches. Some believe most of it comes in March. How else can you explain the mud? But snowmelt, spring showers, and fall thunder-boomers contribute to the mean total. Thankfully the precipitation takes time to get here and takes different forms. It takes harsh storms and wet pavement to wash off muddy tires. A light sprinkle just won’t do it.

About the weather, most Brown Countians will employ the Hoosier saying, “Wait a while, it’ll change.”