Winter Lifestyle of the River Otter

Article, images, and video by Annette Bays

Read Time: 3 minutes

Some of you may have read the article called “Adorable Otters” in the June edition of this newsletter. In that account a family of 4 otters visited our pond in the spring. They fished and napped, enjoying the sun, and interacted delightfully with each other. 

This is an offshoot of that story, but this time there was only one otter. This worried me at first; that this otter was alone, but I soon learned that there is a very good reason for this. And it is just one of the changes that winter brings to the life of a river otter.

Since they don’t hibernate, otters must make changes to their habits to endure the cold conditions, not only of the water, but also of the effects of the wind as they come out of the water. They don’t have a layer of blubber, as many aquatic mammals do. Instead they trap air under their thick fur to stay warm, so it’s important that they get enough food and groom their coats regularly to keep them in good condition.

Obviously an otter’s prey (mainly fish, frogs, crayfish and bugs) is less abundant in winter, so an otter family could quickly clean out all the prey in a small area like our pond. Therefore otter families disperse in winter to increase their chances of having enough food to survive until spring. Finding this out alleviated my worry about this one being alone.

Otters catch their prey under the water, so a frozen surface (of river, pond or lake) doesn’t stop an otter from fishing, as long as there is a crack or hole they can use to access the water. And if they decide they want to frequent a certain pond or lake, they will make a hole in the ice and maintain it by repeated use. 

Now, with this mild winter, the surface of our pond hasn’t been properly frozen up to this point, so the otter had no problem entering the water. He did though, have a little problem getting back up onto the ice as it kept breaking beneath his weight. In the following video, although I didn’t catch him falling through, you can see the ice shards that he broke off before his final successful attempt to find a spot that would hold him. He then spent a lot of time on the ice preening himself.

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The other difference in an otter’s winter habits is the switch to being diurnal hunters. This means they only hunt during the day, whereas in summer they are nocturnal to a great extent. This change comes about so they can take advantage of the sunshine and warmer daytime temperatures, and when it’s coldest they can be in their cozy den saving energy.

Another interesting detail was the fact that this otter had a severe injury to his nose. I saw no indication that it bothered him in any way; otherwise he looked strong and healthy, so I hope he is ok. I will be looking for this distinguishing mark if we are lucky enough to have another visit from an otter family this spring.

For a related story of a recent otter sighting in a Toronto park visit here

Winter Lifestyle of the River Otter
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