When the days are getting shorter, the leaves are falling, and frost covers our windshields in the morning, we know what to do. We pull on our favorite cozy sweaters, cook up a pot of chili, and wrap them up in a fuzzy blanket on the couch.
How is our local wildlife preparing for the upcoming cold weather? It depends on two main factors: Can they find food in the winter? And do they have the ability to burn energy to warm their bodies?
Some wild animals lose their food source in the winter. Since most insects do not survive the freezing weather, many songbirds end up traveling thousands of miles to their winter homes in Central and South America where insects abound.
Cold-blooded wildlife, also called outdoor animals, need the sun’s heat to regulate their body temperature. Although the sun shines in winter, the air is very cold. Snakes, frogs, salamanders and turtles have to move in a different direction – underground. They burrow below the frost line and enter a dormant state called stupor to survive the freezing weather.
But other wild animals stay around and make it difficult for her. To adapt and stay active in the cold, they layer. But their warmth doesn’t come from a cozy sweater. Instead, they sport a layer of dense fur and store fat to trap their body heat. To maintain this internal heat through the winter, they need to find food regularly and have a warm, dependable place to survive.
Some wild animals store their food in advance. Squirrels frantically scurry about hoarding or caching nuts for later this winter. Do your bird feeders get emptied faster than in the summer? Many birds that stick for the winter such as cardinals, bluebirds, titmouses, and titmouses, will cache the seeds away in the bark and even in the siding of the wood. Behavior like squirrels hiding nuts.
You may crave a comforting plate of macaroni and cheese when the weather turns cooler, and many animals change up their diet. White-tailed turkeys and deer eat grass and plants during the spring and summer. During the fall and winter, they switch to calorie- and nutrient-dense foods like berries and nuts.
They need not only to prepare food, but also to shelter. Animals cannot operate the oven in their homes. They build nests or huddle together. If you look high in the trees, you may see impressively large and lush squirrel nests. Wildlife often lines its winter home with grass, brushwood, and sawdust to shield it from the blistering winds of winter. Hollow trees or snags provide homes for raccoons, opossums, and squirrels to huddle together and share warmth.
Have you ever seen an animal hide in a tree? Woodpeckers are nature’s contractors. They are the first birds to carve out cavities in dead tree branches in search of caterpillars and insects. Swallows, bluebirds, warblers, little owls, warblers, and wood ducks move into these empty cavities as woodpeckers move.
Consider giving wildlife a helping hand in your backyard this fall. Make a pile of leaves and sticks for insects, snakes, frogs, and turtles to dig under. Leave acorns and nuts on the ground around your oak, hickory, and hickory trees for the animals to find this winter. Keep bird feeders stocked with dry sunflower seeds and add suet cakes for extra fuel. When it is difficult to find ponds and streams over the water. Provide a pot of fresh water in a sunny area, or add a heater to a birdbath.
As you enjoy a cup of hot chocolate in your favorite slippers this winter, you may enjoy the colorful and persevering wildlife outside your window.
Julie Borgmann is the Executive Director of the Red-tail Land Conservancy. Her passion is to preserve habitats where people and wildlife can thrive.