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Warm weather throwing wildlife for a loop

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Muddy tracks line a trail.
Human, dog and possible fox tracks line the muddy path at Falcon Heights Community Park on Friday. The unseasonably warm weather has quickly melted much of the ice and snow around the Twin Cities, leaving parks and trails with inches of mud above still-frozen ground.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Snow could return to the Twin Cities at the end of this week, but the past three days all set record-breaking highs. Friday reached into the 60s, which has only happened in February in the Twin Cities five other times in history.

"We do get midwinter thaws but for it to be this warm for this long is actually fairly unusual . . . it looks like it could be March at this point," says Jennifer Menken, a naturalist and curator at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History. 

She says these high temperatures are throwing wildlife for a loop. Critters who should still be sleeping are waking up, but with the rest of the ecosystem weeks behind them, they may struggle to find enough to eat. 

"Things like bats, this can be really awful with because they have such little fat on their bodies that even waking up once or twice, a little bit longer than they normally would in the winter, they can starve to death," Menken said. 

The warm weather also has maple sap flowing about a month early. If other plants are coaxed into leafing out in the next couple weeks, another frost could kill their buds. Or the bees may not be out soon enough to pollinate early bloomers. 

In both scenarios, some plants could lose their chance to reproduce for the year. 

Milder winters are more of a trend than a fluke. Consider that the Bell Museum now has dioramas that could be considered outdated. 

"One of the ones we have is of a Maple-Basswood Forest . . . in Waseca, Minn. When they built that diorama in the 1940s, it represented really late April, early May, so it's the first of the spring ephemerals coming out. Now if you were to go to that part of the state and see that, it would happen at the beginning of April," Menken said. 

Producer Max Nesterak visited a suburban park just north of the Twin Cities with Menken. Click the audio above to hear the story.