Winter Wildlife

Ever wonder what’s going on with the wildlife during the dead of winter when we’re not seeing as many wild creatures? It makes a person wonder: who left, who stayed, who’s sleeping and who turned white to camouflage themselves?

If you put out a birdfeeder to help the songbirds make it through these tough times, then you’re seeing the birds that stayed, those that didn’t fly south to warmer climes. These are the natives—woodpeckers, black capped chickadees, tufted titmouse, finches, sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, crows and nuthatches. And there are a couple of newcomers, birds like juncos and snowy owls are showing up, because for them this is south.

Almost all the waterfowl went south, as well, except for the loons. They went to the seashore for the winter. A lot of the raptors left, too. Many of the bald eagles have gone to local wintering grounds, places like rivers that have open water and areas with food sources other than fish. The owls have stayed right where they are.

Some of the animals that are missing are simply sleeping away the winter, mammals like black bears that fattened up ahead of the cold weather have retreated to snug dens. The black bear sows give birth to their young during this winter sleep which might begin as soon as late November and last until spring. During this time their metabolism is lowered to the point that they don’t eat, drink or eliminate waste.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Department wildlife biologists identify seven warm-blooded winter sleepers. In addition to the bears, the hibernators include bats, woodchucks, meadow jumping mice, chipmunks, skunks and raccoons. The three true hibernators are the jumping mice, bats and woodchucks. The rest experience a deep sleep state of torpor in which they are slightly alert, and some of them wake occasionally to eat, forage and even roam around a bit.

All of the cold-blooded creatures—snakes, frogs, turtles, toads and salamanders are also napping the winter away. Snakes den below the frost line. Turtles burrow in the sediment at the bottom of ponds and basically hold their breath until spring. Many other amphibians burrow into the sediment of ponds and wetlands for the winter, but three species of frogs—wood frogs, gray tree frogs and spring peepers actually freeze, protected from damage by their own natural anti-freeze.

Deer still wander the woods. Starting this month, he bucks will shed the antlers they grew last year and the does bred during the rut in November and December will begin gestation. If we get deep snow they may “yard,” spending their time in a small area of evergreen cover where they’ll make trails and limit movement to conserve energy, eating little and living on their fat reserves.

So far this has been a good winter for predators like fisher, coyote, fox and bobcat. This will change as snow accumulates and hides their favorite prey species—mice, moles, shrews and voles. The area under the snow where those small mammals reside is called the subnivean zone, a world of unseen tunnels.

This means some of those predators will be on the lookout for larger prey, like squirrels, which may bring them close to the birdfeeders people put out. Other large prey species include turkeys, which have divided into flocks by sex—hens and jennies or toms and jakes.

In the case of the snowshoe hare, safety lies in coloration. This animal changes color in winter to become white, which is a good thing when there’s a snow cover to blend into, not so good if the woods are bare. This natural camouflage works for a predator as well—the weasel. Both the short-tailed (a.k.a. ermine) and long-tailed weasels turn white in winter to better hide themselves as they hunt.

Most of that hunting is nocturnal, so we don’t see a lot of the animal activity that takes place. But when there is snow on the ground these hunters and their prey leave their tracks behind to tell the story of their activities.

While we may not see many of these creatures during the winter months, if there is snow on the ground, we can always see their stories. All we need to do is arm ourselves with a guide to animal tracks and go out there and do some reading.