Batten Down the Hatches

article by Elizabeth Trickey, images by Jen Howard

The cool weather is upon us.  Winter is coming.  What’s happening with our wildlife friends?  Will they tough out the blowing snow, retreat to warmer climates, or find a place to hunker down to wait out the cold weather?

Not all critters disappear from view when the going gets tough.  We do have some hardy ones that were made for the Great White North!  Like humans, animals have light coats for summers, then get heavier, warmer coats for the winters for when they go out foraging for their next meal.  And nature has developed a way that, despite ice and snow covering many food sources, and berries and foliage long gone, wildlife can still get the nutrition they need to survive.

Take deer, for instance.  All through the summer, they feed almost exclusively on tree leaves, plants, and grasses.  In the autumn, their diet changes to fruits and nuts, which help pack on fat for the coming season.  Their stomachs have specific microorganisms and bacteria that help to digest these types of food.  Nature knows that come winter, these foods are no longer available for the deer, so the microorganisms in their stomachs change to accommodate the high fibre tree bark and twigs which will be their main diet.  Neat, eh?

Rabbits are similar to deer in that their bodies adapt well to the change in weather.  Their diet of berries, grasses, leaves, and flowers in the summer, gives way to high fibre foods like twigs, pine needles, and fruit tree bark.  This type of diet is difficult to digest, but the first pellets of poo that rabbits excrete are moist, and still have lots of nutrition in them.  So bunnies eat those first few morsels of poo in order to get as much nutrition as possible.

Squirrels are very hardy creatures. Their goal in autumn is to get as fat as possible for insulation against the upcoming winter.  That’s why you see so many chonky squirrels in January!  They are quite active during the cold months of the year, and not only do they  grow a thick winter coat, but despite being loners, they tolerate others of their species in their nests for the extra body heat.  The food that they eat doesn’t really change much from summer to winter because during the autumn, these critters hide away caches of food.  Unfortunately, for them, they don’t always remember where they left their stockpiles, and sometimes their hoards have been pilfered by other animals! 

Nothing seems quite as beautiful as a red fox posing majestically in the snow.  These animals usually have dens when child-rearing, but otherwise live out in the open, taking shelter under bushes when it’s cold.  Hardy souls, they are!  Foxes eat both meat and vegetation, and due to incredible senses of smell and hearing, are able to hunt for prey that scurry around under a foot of snow!  They are also known to store food for a later meal.  So the lives of foxes don’t change very much from one season to another, other than growing a furrier coat.

Here’s to all the animals that meet the winter head-on!  Nature is truly awesome!

Batten Down the Hatches
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