How local wildlife prepares for winter

Barred Owl

As humans, we prepare for winter in a variety of ways. We turn on the heat in our homes, bring our winter coats and snow boots out of storage, winterize our automobiles and more. Animals also prepare for winter, but in their own unique way. Throughout the next few months you will likely notice reduced activity in local wildlife, as animals prepare for the harsh conditions of the winter months.

According to Lake Erie Nature & Science Center's expert wildlife staff, there are four common strategies local wildlife use in preparing for winter – migrating, hibernating, undergoing dormancy or simply dealing with it.

Migrators do what appeals to some humans when the weather cools down and the snow begins to fall – they head south to a warmer place. Many birds, including almost all insect eaters (woodpeckers being one of the exceptions) follow this strategy. Certain bats are among the few mammal migrators in Ohio, who fly down to the southern states and even Central America to find warmer climates. While this strategy may seem appealing, migrators use a significant amount of their energy traveling back and forth each year.

Hibernators seem to have the best of both worlds. Rather than spending all of their energy traveling, they simply shut down their bodies until spring. Woodchucks, turtles, snakes and some bats are common hibernators in Northeast Ohio. While in hibernation, woodchucks drop their body temperature into the low 40s, taking only one breath every six minutes. Painted turtles burrow into the underwater mud and stay submerged for up to five months, surviving by absorbing tiny amounts of oxygen through their skin.

The route most of our Ohio mammals take when the weather gets rough is dormancy, which involves a series of mini-hibernations where animals can den up for many days during harsh conditions and “wake up” to forage for food when the conditions are milder. Squirrels, skunks and raccoons use this strategy.

Some animals simply deal with the winter, due to their special adaptations that allow them to survive in harsh conditions. The red fox, a resident animal at the Center, grows a thick undercoat of fur for winter, while American Robins change their diets to cope with winter. Rather than foraging for worms on the ground, they are likely to be seen in the trees foraging for berries.

"Although the winter blizzards and brutal cold can seem unbearable to humans, wildlife is well-adapted to contend with the elements," says Director of Wildlife Amy LeMonds. "Certain animals even come to Ohio just for the winter season! Keep an eye out for Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Mergansers and Snowy Owls during the winter months."

For any questions or concerns about wildlife, please call the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center at 440-471-8357 for advice.

Morgan Paskert

Morgan Paskert is on staff at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.

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Volume 8, Issue 24, Posted 10:11 AM, 12.13.2016