How does wildlife cope with winter?
Northeast Ohio winters call for heavy coats, heated automobiles and cozy fires to escape the cold.
What about wildlife? How do animals cope with the harsh conditions of winter? Director of Wildlife, Amy LeMonds, is here to answer some of the most common questions she receives at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.
Where does wildlife go?
Over time, wildlife has evolved and adapted to the climatic changes in their habitats. Animals who cannot cope with winter’s conditions have developed different mechanisms for survival. For example, some animals hibernate throughout the entire winter, while others migrate south to a warmer place.
When an animal hibernates, it drops its body temperature and heart rate to enter a deep sleep. Woodchucks, turtles and snakes are common hibernators in Northeast Ohio.
“Woodchucks drop their body temperature into the low 40s, taking only one breath every six minutes,” says LeMonds. “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.”
Migrating birds – and some bats – spend a great deal of energy traveling to the southern states and even Central America to find warmer climates and nutrient-rich habitats.
What about wildlife that stays active in Northeast Ohio?
Many mammals in Northeast Ohio undergo short periods of dormancy during harsh conditions, involving a series of mini-hibernations where they den up for many days and wake to forage for food when conditions are milder. Squirrels, skunks and raccoons use this strategy.
Other animals simply deal with the winter and survive due to their special adaptations. The Red Fox grows a thick undercoat of fur, while the Snowshoe Hare’s coat transforms to white to provide warmth and camouflage.
How do wild animals find food?
Whether hibernating or remaining active, body fat is an important factor in an animal’s survival. Birds and mammals will store and eat extra food in the fall so their bodies can draw energy from fat reserves when resources become scarce.
Changes in diet are also common for wildlife in the winter. Rather than foraging for worms on the ground, American Robins are likely to be seen in the trees foraging for berries. Eastern Cottontails swap out green vegetation, fruits and vegetables for twigs and bark.
Owls choose to hunt when the weather is mild and food is abundant. They can even thaw frozen food by sitting on it, similar to incubating eggs.
Does wildlife need our help this winter?
"Although the winter blizzards and brutal cold can seem unbearable to humans, wildlife is well-adapted to contend with the elements," says LeMonds. She advises the public to not feed wild animals, as this often causes more harm than good.
Certain animals travel to Ohio just for the winter season! Keep an eye out for Dark-eyed Juncos, White-winged Crossbills and Snowy Owls.
LeMonds and her staff are available to answer wildlife questions at 440-871-2900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morgan Paskert is on staff at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.