article by Elizabeth Trickey, photos by Jennifer Howard
Hey, where did all the wildlife go now that the cold weather is here? And I don’t mean those spirited old folk who flee to Florida to play golf every year! I am referring to our furry and feathered friends.
Critters are very much like humankind. After all, we are animals, too. Some more than others… Not all birds fly south in the winter, not all mammals hibernate, and not all humans embrace the winter months. Some of us look forward to the snow and cooler climate. I am one of those people who eagerly dusts off my snowshoes in December and can’t wait for trails to be abandoned by all but the hardiest of animals.
I am sure that there are many feathered and furry animals that feel the same. Less competition for available food, less worry about predators. Mother Nature has her plan for the survival of all species.
So which animals (besides me!) should you expect to see out and about this winter? Well, I see squirrels almost every day. I would say they are like me – if the day is beautiful (aren’t all days?), they will be out foraging for all those treats that they buried in the fall. Squirrels don’t hibernate or go into torpor. What is torpor, you ask? It is a state where an animal goes into a deep sleep for a short time (maybe a week or two) to avoid the cold weather. Yeah, I can see a few readers are smiling and nodding in understanding about that!
Chipmunks are a type of squirrel, but we don’t see those little critters out and about during winter. No, they are not very hardy animals. They live underground and couldn’t even grace us with their presence if they wanted, since it would be too difficult for them to dig up through the snow to get to the surface. Instead, they live off the stockpile of nuts and other treats that they hoarded in their burrows during the autumn. These little critters go into torpor with their metabolism slowing down for a couple of weeks, then they wake up to satisfy their hunger, and then go back into torpor. We won’t see these cuties until the spring!
Most winter nights I hear the coyotes in the forest out back, yelping and howling to beat the band! I used to think that they were chasing, or had caught, some unsuspecting prey. Then I just worried about all the bunnies that hop by our house every evening to say hello. Experts say that coyotes howl for many reasons, not necessarily because they have made a great dinner out of one of my wildlife friends. So, I am not sure what the coyote ruckus is all about, but due to my fondness of the bunnies, I choose to believe they are just marking their territory! So, do expect to hear, if not see, these beautiful canines. And don’t be afraid of them. Coyotes are not usually aggressive towards humans. If we respect them, they will respect us. They are only around us, in suburbia, because we have invaded their space, and they are only trying to adapt to the changes we have made in their habitat.
I’ll bet quite a number of you readers have seen rabbits in the early evening (if you don’t have too many coyotes in your area….) They are active all winter long, mostly in the evenings. I was lucky enough to have a family of bunnies born right on my property this spring. And they never left. Probably because my neighbour had a great vegetable garden! OK, and I did put out some corn for them, and still do. Many people think that in the winter, rabbit fur turns white so that they can be better camouflaged in the snow. Not so. Hare fur changes colour, but not the fur of rabbits. Although these animals are from the same family, they are a different species.
In the winter, the diet of a rabbit changes. My neighbour no longer has his garden, so they subsist on tree bark, buds, and twigs. These foods are difficult for them to digest so it takes 2 rounds of eating the same meal to benefit from all the nutrients that are still in these foods. How do they do that? I thought you would never ask! Cecotrophy. Now don’t get too grossed out reading this, it’s just another amazing way that nature provides to animals to help them cope in tough times. You see, cecotrophy is eating their own poo. Rabbits excrete 2 types of poo. The first stuff is cecotropes – nutrition packed pellets that are shiny and clumped together. These tasty nuggets are excreted first, and rabbits chow down on them blissfully! The second round of poo is, well, poo. These little morsels are small, round, and dry, and there is no nutrition in them, so they are left wherever they are dropped, easily seen in the snow where there are rabbits in the vicinity.
What other critters should you expect to see? How about groups of wild turkeys as they strut through backyards, looking for food. No hibernation for these fellas, though you’d think they’d at least try to hide during the holiday season! They are active during the day, so keep your eyes open for them. At night, they nest in the branches of trees, high enough to avoid predators as they sleep.
When my winter hiking takes me along a river, I see other mammals such as otters and muskrat. They forage for food along the banks of the river, not far from the safety of the water. Beavers are also active throughout the year, though I have yet to see one come out of hiding. Mostly they stay under the water, feeding on tree branches that, in the autumn, they carefully placed near the entrance of their lodges.
Lots of our small feathered friends stay around throughout the winter months – cardinals, nuthatches, blue jays, juncos, chickadees, and woodpeckers – to name a few you might see. They will be looking for berries, insects, and whatever is left out for them in backyard feeders. These colourful birds are easily seen against the contrast of the snow.
There are many other animals that are active throughout the winter, but chances are, you will never see any of them. Porcupines, skunks, raccoons, deer, red fox, moose – some of these critters are skilled at staying out of sight, and some just plainly don’t like the cold, only venturing from their hide-aways when necessary or when there is a mild winter day.
Our Great White North has lots of hardy wildlife just waiting to pose for a picture. So, bundle up and go outside with your camera! Or just go for a hike, watching for signs of animal activity, like paw/hoof prints and poo, and maybe they will lead you to foraging critters.
If you are driving to one of the many trails in our communities, do be careful on the roads – we share this world with many animals whose habitats have been criss-crossed with highways. They still have to move around to find food and care for their families, and we should allow them to do this safely.
For more pictures of our feathered friends in winter, please enjoy the following gorgeous closeups by Jennifer Howard.