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Not a total extinction, mind you. Just how long do you think it would take for the residents of a small town of survivors to notice?

Obviously this varies from place to place and ecosystem to ecosystem, so let's give them the best chance for survival in the prolonged cold of a nuclear winter and say this is a town in the Canadian wilderness (or the Minnesota wilderness depending on where you are on the border). How long would it take after a large-scale nuclear exchange (maybe a few thousand bombs?) for people in that town to notice stuff like larger animals (bears, moose, cougars) dying off and how long would it take for smaller animals (squirrels, rabbits, mice, birds, freshwater fish) to die off? Would any of these animal populations ever die off completely in that area, or would their numbers just go down?

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    $\begingroup$ How big your nuclear winter is going to be? Just one missed summer on USA-Canada border, and wildlife population would go down severely. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 5 '17 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Nuclear war depictions are always about the shock and awe at the end. This story concept would turn that on its head - instead of the fire it is the slow death, the failure of life, the dwindling. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 6 '17 at 22:48
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It would be a sad story if you have the writing chops. Waiting for winter to end has been a human preoccupation for as long as humans have lived in the north. They would be waiting for a spring that never comes.

In the north, plants power down, big animals live on their reserves and little animal hibernate.

From https://www1.maine.gov/ifw/hunting_trapping/pdfs/deer_yards.pdf

Deer go into the winter with a full tank of gas (fat reserves) not knowing how long the journey will be. If deep snow and bitter winds start early or persist late into spring, some deer will run out of gas (fat reserves) and die. The greatest mortality is experienced by fawns, followed by adult bucks and then does. Severe winters can significantly deplete the fawn crop, resulting in drastically reduced recruitment into the population.

Your story would start in April. Days would get longer, but not warmer. Starving deer and rabbits eat the bark off of trees when they are hungry. Dead deer would start to turn up. Then animals like squirrels would come out of hibernation and die. A bear could come out and start eating the frozen dead deer lying around. Deer (and I think rabbits) will eat meat if they can and I can imagine a cannibalism scene with the deer. They do not have the right kind of teeth or jaws for frozen meat and they would struggle.

The birds would not come back.

If this is inland and it never gets warm enough for the plants to grow, all of the animals will be dead or moved on within a year.

You could have the humans save one squirrel. They could go out and clear off the snow and ice so it can dig for the nuts it hid in the fall. It would be pointless, but everything is pointless.

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  • $\begingroup$ Rabbits cannot eat meat, they only can eat plants. $\endgroup$ – Julian Egner Jul 6 '17 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianEgner Rabbits and deer are mostly herbivores, but they can and do eat meat in a desperate situation---and sometimes not. It might not be good for them, and is certainly not recommended for a pet rabbit, but they CAN eat meat. (And there are YouTube Vids of rabbits doing just that. Not hard to find.) In the wild, you would be surprised what an animal will do for food. Anything will be on the menu. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jul 6 '17 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianEgner And they will sometimes, on their own, hunt bugs. I've seen it myself...pets.stackexchange.com/questions/7641/… $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jul 6 '17 at 15:40
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The animals won't really die off before the people. The thing that kills things during large sudden climate changes is the lack of food/water available. If the nuclear exchange really did bring a nuclear winter, the people would be unable to grow/find food just like the animals.

Nuclear winters are caused by the nuclear blasts creating so much debris in the atmosphere that large amount of sunlight is blocked. So the townspeople likely knows by the fact that the sky is dark long before the animals start to die off. But the affect of the lasting nuclear winter would probably start killing things within a couple weeks because of the lack of food as plants die.

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