The creatures among us in the natural world have unique ways of managing the arrival of winter, and I don’t mean bunking down with you by a warm crackling fire. In the case of wildlife, some have multiple techniques while others simply have one. Chances are that any avian, reptilian, amphibian or mammalian species you stumbled upon in the woods this fall participate in one or more of these fascinating winterizing methods. Winter survival pushes animals into migration, hibernation, or utilization of their delicately selected life-sustaining adaptations.
| Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) do not migrate or hibernate. What adaptations must be employed to insure their winter survival? |
Migration is a roundtrip journey to a more suitable location or habitat. Why expend high amounts of energy to travel to a new geographic region? Insect populations down south are still soaring during our arthropod absence. Many songbirds love to eat these nutritious insects, while hawks and falcons prefer to eat the fleeing songbirds. In a large scale cause-and-effect game of follow the leader, these animals make their way down to a warmer south. Even monarchs from right here in Ohio migrate to Mexico!
In addition to migration, the wintry weather may induce a body state called hibernation. This is when the animal’s metabolism reduces the heart rate and body temperature to bypass the winter. Let’s just hope the animal finds a safe spot to pass time while in this semi-immobile state. Groundhogs may reach an all-time low body temperature of 38º F while taking only 5 breaths a minute! I can picture it now, that groundhog rolled up in a little ball down his snow-topped hole. Even cold-blooded creatures like frogs, turtles, and snakes undergo a state of hibernation to conserve energy throughout the winter.
The most popular of all methods to cope with the onset of winter is sticking around and dealing with the extreme conditions. Some animals are specially equipped with physical or behavioral traits that allow them to survive in a seasonally changing environment. The great horned owl has feather-covered ankles to help keep warm, allowing it to overwinter in Ohio. Some animals may change their food preferences so they can tolerate the winter’s change in menu. Whether the adaptation is physical or behavioral, it allows the animal to reside here year round, all the while avoiding the high energy costs of migration and the dangers of hibernating.
What does winter survival mean to you? Putting on a jacket and toe-covered shoes, slurping up a warm bowl of soup, or perhaps purchasing a set of snow tires for the family vehicle? Imagine not being able to purchase or wear anything additional to help cope with the harsh conditions. Luckily, humans have developed methods for living in almost every environment on Earth. Let’s welcome winter and watch the wild ways wildlife changes.