How Animals Survive Winter
Well it looks like winter is upon us. I like winter! Of course I also like spring, summer and fall but winter is one of my favorite times for getting out in the woods. It is too bad that many people, (and you may be one) hate winter. They fret about the 5pm darkness, the cold, the grayness, the sniffles, the snow and on and on and on.
But winter isn’t so bad for most of us humans. We just put on an extra layer of clothes, crank up the thermostat, and turn on the lights. However for plants and animals, winter can be a struggle and different species have different ways of coping.
Some animals head to where the weather is more hospitable. You may have heard and seen the sandhill cranes overhead the last few weeks heading south. The hummingbirds left a couple of months ago. Some birds, like the yellow-bellied sapsucker in the photo at left migrate from farther north to winter here in Tennessee.
Many birds stay here, but some, especially the insect eaters, have to change their diet to survive. In winter, bluebirds switch from mostly bugs to mostly fruit, such as dogwood, holly or red cedar berries. Contrary to many folk’s beliefs, birds do not need us to feed them to make it till spring. Birds have survived winter for thousands of years without black oil sunflower seeds or suet. Bird feeders are mostly for our benefit, and a nice benefit it is.
Some mammals become less active in winter. True hibernators like groundhogs curl up in underground burrows and sleep for up to six months at a time. They can survive without food by dropping their temperature from about 100 degrees to 50 and by dropping their heart rate from 80 to about 5 beats per minute. Bears mostly sleep the winter away, but they are not true hibernators and wake up from time to time. Don’t be surprised to see bear tracks in snow.
Amphibians disappear completely. Frogs, turtles, and salamanders bury themselves deep in the mud below frost line and get all the oxygen they need by absorption through their skin. Reptiles, like snakes and lizards, overwinter underground.
Foxes, coyotes, bobcats, mink, and other carnivores stay active all winter long. Deer stay active too, but they switch their diet to survive. They switch from roses and tulips to mostly twigs and buds in the woods. Elk migrate in winter, not south, but rather from the mountaintop meadows to the warmer and more protected valleys.
Many insects die in the cold weather, but many more can survive freezing temperatures with a type of antifreeze in their blood. A few insects even hatch on snowy days such as tiny Blue-Winged Olive mayflies that live in cold clear trout streams.
Even though much of nature slows down or goes to sleep, winter is a great time to get out. If you are moving and dressed in layers you can be very comfortable no matter what the temperature is. And, for me, an hour or two hike when the snow is coming down in the woods is about as good as it gets.
So think positive about winter. Get out and see how the real world of nature survives the season. Look for tracks in the snow and birds in the trees. We don’t need to shut down just because it is colder outside. Get out enjoy winter; we have it a heck of a lot easier than the animals.
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