As the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, do you migrate south to warmer weather, put an extra blanket on the bed and hibernate or put on your winter coat and keep active? I like to do all of the above to pass the winter months away. But don’t you wonder as you look out the window at the frost covered trees just how animals survive the winter months?
The most important factor for winter survival of warm-blooded animals is a food source. Insects, plants and berries are limited or non-existent. Maintaining body temperature requires a great deal of energy. Many birds and butterflies will migrate as far as South America to find a consistent food source throughout the winter. Some animals, like the Indiana and little brown bat, will migrate shorter distances south and hibernate in caves.
True hibernators like bears slow their heart rate and body temperature to near coma-like levels. Our local hibernator is the woodchuck or ground hog. A ground hog can slow its heart rate from 80 to 4 beats per minute and lower its body temperature from 98F to 38F. If their body temperature drops much lower they will wake up and shiver to warm up. Skunks, raccoons, opossum and some chipmunks are “light sleepers.” They will find shelter and sleep through very cold weather periods with no change in heart rate or body temperature. During milder weather they will wake up to roam and eat.
Snow and ice can act as an insulator. While some fish remain active under the ice, most frogs and turtles go deep and hide under rocks, logs, and leaves or bury themselves in the mud. On land, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians will hide out under the snow, leaves, and grass. Here they can hibernate or huddle in nests with stored food sources.
Honeybees will create a wax comb inside a tree for protection and store up honey for food. Squirrels likewise store up nuts eating as many as they can and hiding the others. Animals that cannot store food, hibernate or migrate must adapt. Deer will root through the snow or eat bark when the grass is covered and leaves are gone. The red fox will switch its diet from insects and berries to small rodents. Non-migrating birds such as the cardinal and robins will also change their diet from insects and berries to seeds and fruit.
As you sit inside your warm house munching on tasty holiday treats you may be tempted to share some food with the wildlife. With the exception of songbirds feeding wildlife can cause more harm than help. Unnatural feeding can be detrimental to their health and will cause them to not move on when other food sources become available. Deer will find your hostas and flowers a more delightful treat in springtime.
Make your backyard a wildlife friendly habitat by providing natural food sources and shelter. Plant native grasses, fruit, nut and berry producing plants. Create shelter by leaving piles of leaves, brush or other plant materials in your yard. Whether you fly south or stay home this winter don’t hibernate. Put on some warm clothing and get outdoors to enjoy the winter landscape.