The winter cold is upon us, and it might have you worried about wildlife, wondering where they go or how they find food in our harsh winters. Wildlife in Western New York has survived winters for many thousands of years with a host of different adaptations to survive cold temperatures, scarce food supplies, and deep snow. They have survived over time without the help of people and will continue to do so. Activities like bird feeding are just a supplemental food source in times when food is scarce and weather is nasty. So, if you ever feel like you want to “help” wildlife in the cold, rest assured that our local wildlife is well suited to naturally cope with WNY winters using some of the following techniques.
Fattening up: In fall, many animals go on a feeding frenzy, fattening up in preparation for the cold winter weather. That may be why our local birds seemed to be somewhat absent from our feeders this fall. It was a year full of acorns, walnuts, beech nuts, and other fatty foods that were available and consumed by birds, squirrels, deer, and chipmunks.
Finding food: The animals that are active and on the move during winter need to keep on eating. These include coyotes, fishers, and bobcats, as well as hawks and owls. These critters will hunt for food or scavenge on carcasses of dead animals. Deer undergo a change in their digestive system to feed on twigs, buds, and bark. They, as well as turkeys, will dig through the snow looking for fall nuts and acorns. Chickadees, woodpeckers, sparrows, and finches inspect the ground and crevices in trees for overwintering insects, seeds, and lichens.
Staying warm: Mammals like coyotes and raccoons appear larger in winter due to their thick, dense winter coats that keep them warm. Otter, beaver, mink, and muskrat have a double layer coat with extremely dense fine hairs near the body, protected by the visible longer guard hairs. These animals waterproof their fur by regularly rubbing it with body oils, allowing water to slide off instead of soaking in. The winter coats of deer have hollow hairs, which trap air, adding a layer of insulation. Birds will fluff their feathers out, trapping air which acts as insulation, much like a down jacket. Ducks and geese not only have down feathers to protect them, but they too rub oils on their feathers to keep water from sliding off their back.
Conserving energy: Deer limit their travels to conserve energy and fat reserves. They naturally seek out areas near food and water with tree cover, which offers shallower snow, milder temperatures, and less wind. Because fish are cold-blooded, they don’t have to worry about staying warm. The two main concerns for fish in the winter are rapid changes in temperature and running out of oxygen. Fish can’t regulate their body temperature like mammals, so if the temperature rises or drops too quickly, they can die. Additionally, thick ice and heavy snow can block sunlight, decreasing oxygen levels and causing a winter fish kill.
Hibernating and sleeping: Bears typically enter their winter dens in late fall and exit in late spring. They commonly den underneath brush piles, fallen trees, or rocks. Frogs, turtles, and other reptiles and amphibians will burrow into the pond mud. They may still “freeze” but have the ability to thaw out for the spring. Woodchucks are “true” hibernators – their heartbeat slows and their body temperature lowers, which conserves energy as they slowly burn through their fat reserves in the long winter months. Skunks will sleep through much of winter, but when temperatures go above freezing, they may wake up and move about looking for food.
Tunneling in: Mice, voles, and other small mammals will create tunnels through the snow, serving as insulation from cold, escaping predators, and feeding on grasses and seeds from the past year's growing season.
Now that you know how wildlife copes with the cold, remember . . . no worries, and when in doubt . . . the best way to help them make it through the winter is to step back and allow their instincts to take over.
Article by Carol Markham, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Conservationist
Photos by Twan Leenders, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Director of Conservation