The Sleepy Heads of Winter

Some people say when winter comes that they wish they could go south or hibernate. Well, although some wildlife can’t go south, they do go into hibernation. During late summer and fall, some are very busy finding food and caching it in their dens so they can get through the winter months, when winter gets bad, while others go into a torpor state. Bears would be an example of this, although, for them, it is not a true hibernation, but semi-hibernation. This month’s article, I will go through a few species and talk about hibernating for the winter, which by the way, there are many days I wish I could hibernate too! LOL.

So basically, surviving the winter months by wildlife is done in many ways. Some develop a camouflage look, like ermine, arctic fox and snowshoe hare, turning white so they are not easy to spot by their predators. Some full out hibernate, and others go into what is called a torpor state. Decreased heart rate, breathing and metabolic rate changes are experienced by these animals.

A bear is a good example of torpor; male and female bears (sows) go into their dens sometimes as late as December. The females birth their cubs in January, but as they go into a torpor state and not a true hibernation, a bear’s heartbeat during torpor drops from 40 to 50 beats per minute to a mere 4 beats per minute. They can last about 100 days with no food or water.  However, they are awake and aware when their cubs are born, and if the den or if they are threatened in any way they can bounce back quickly and move to safety.

Moving around, however, does deplete their stored fat energy that they worked hard to build before they denned up. It is so important to leave those berries for our wildlife since they depend on these berry crops for life. We, on the other hand, can get what we need from grocery stores! Sometimes those berries don’t produce due to weather-related issues during the summer months and that makes it very hard for them. Now back to the den.  They will burn a lot of energy in cold weather, so they may be awake, but you shouldn’t see them out and about unless they were disturbed. They will move around in their den though, sows caring for their tiny cubs.

It’s mostly the larger animals that go into the torpor state and small animals into true hibernation. But with the change in our climate, and yes for you non-believers, it is changing, and it is called climate change and we have done it. Mother Nature is extremely angry as you can see in many parts of the world. Australia, for one example, is literally on fire, it’s devastating in more than one way and brings tears to my eyes. It’s horrible and it’s scary.

If we do have mild winter days, I have seen my little chipmunks out foraging around my bird feeder station which expends a lot of their much-needed energy.

Does everything survive hibernation? No. It does not. Unfortunately, some do not make it back out of their den; extreme winter conditions, flooding, old age, going into hibernation without enough stored body fat,  in poor body condition or without enough stored food to get them through, waking up before they should are all factors which can cause problems for them.

So yes, you may see raccoons, chipmunks or skunks out on a mild winter day. They just get confused. But if you sense they need help don’t hesitate to call a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Let’s talk a bit about a few different wildlife species and how they survive our Canadian winters.

Bats:  true hibernators. When they go into hibernation their tiny heart slows right down from around a whopping 1000 beats per minute to a very slow 25 beats. Taking in a breath every 2 hours; incredible.  If a bat gets disturbed, it will wake up and you may find it on the ground in a distressed state. They cannot survive our winters outside. Get it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility ASAP. Do not touch it with bare hands, always wear gloves or use a small towel, put in a container with a good seal and a lot of air holes, keep it warm and get it to help as soon as you can. Call the wildlife rehabilitation facility first to make sure someone is there; never, ever leave an injured or sick animal on a doorstep. Ever. And never try to care for it yourself. I cannot stress this enough. Could be the life or death of this animal.

Chipmunks: a true hibernator. During hibernation, its heartbeat drops from 350 beats per minute to a very slow 4 beats per minute. These little critters can wake up and eat stored food in their dens, urinate and defecate. But as I mention on a mild winter day you may see one out. It will not be out long and will go back to sleep.

Bumblebees: yes, bees hibernate. I’m talking about the bumblebee here. The males and workers of this species die but the queens after mating find a nice cozy spot to spend their winter such as holes in the ground or just under the surface in flowerpots etc.  6 to 8 months later she emerges and finds a new spot for her nest and begins laying her eggs and starting a new colony. Beware of waking bumblebees in the spring! They don’t just wake up and fly, they are a little slow, so watch going barefoot in your yard as you may encounter one.

Garter snakes: I know a few of you will be squeamish hearing about snakes. But the truth is they are very good to have around. I wish I had some in my garden, but too much development and habitat loss have seen their numbers dwindle, here and in a lot of places. Also, for whatever reason, some people fear snakes; if they see one, they kill it or they run it over. Snakes cannot hurt you; they are amazing rodent controllers and I will even go looking for them to photograph because they are just awesome creatures. There are some beautiful tiny snakes out there, I have even done massasauga rattlesnake surveys, physically going out into their turf and searching for them, to help protect the habitat of this disappearing species. I have never even been struck by one. Rattled yes, but I scared her, and I reacted accordingly, calmly. And believe me, I have been close coming up on females leaving their hibernacula in spring. Very hard to see them. Respect them and their space, they are more afraid of you, believe me. They want nothing to do with you. All snakes are good for our environment. So today I’m going to talk about our cute little garter snakes because most of you have probably seen one of those on your journeys. When hibernation takes place, they are not alone. They hibernate in big groups, maybe even hundreds. Although it’s possible seeing such an event may be rare now, I have seen it when they were emerging in spring years ago. It is incredible. They hibernate together and they emerge together. If you are lucky to see this just remember, they are a living breathing being, like yourselves, are harmless, cannot protect themselves so are helpless, and are good for our environment for rodent control. Snakes are awesome and are not slimy, but smooth and dry. Don’t hurt them.

Turtles:  Another species that people seem to kill senselessly. They can’t hurt you, are totally harmless and defenceless, they cannot protect themselves. Except for our snapping turtles who can inflict a bite, they are, however, terrified of you and if cornered or threatened on land, that is all they have to protect themselves. In water, they will not bite your toes or bother you. And of course, turtles are run over and abused for no reason at all. Studies have proven this, and I have seen this. They are disappearing. They are incredible. All 8 Ontario turtles are now listed at one level or another on the Species at Risk ACT. Very sad. I have rescued many, helped many more to safety and had many injured ones spend the night in my bathtub having found them late in the day, keeping them in a warm box waiting for their long trip in the morning to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre in Peterborough, as long as they are stable. And I always call the Ontario turtle conservation hospital first (705.741.5000) to confirm their state and make sure they are stable enough to spend the night with me safely. Unless it is a dire emergency then we are off right then after talking to the hospital. I have monitored many turtle nests and recorded the hatchlings upon their arrival into this world. When I find injured ones, I have since learned how to stabilize them, so they are comfortable for their long drive to help. These, my friends, are amazingly incredible little lives.  Think about a pond or wetland in winter. Temperatures drop, ice forms on top, and these little dudes live there all winter. They are cold-blooded and have the ability to actually breath from their butt. It is called “butt breathing”. They depend on stored energy and the uptake of oxygen the pond water gives them by moving it across the turtles’ body surfaces which are flush and full of blood vessels. This keeps them alive. During this process, a turtle gets enough oxygen to support itself without using its lungs. So, using their “butts” which is a vascularized area keeps them alive allowing them to breathe. Is that not incredible or what? Midland painted turtles even have a type of antifreeze in their systems. When little painted turtles hatch late in the season, they can actually overwinter in their nest. Undisturbed tucked in, oblivious to winter. Emerging in spring when the weather is good. No other of our Ontario turtles have this ability, therefore late hatchlings of other species sometimes die when they emerge not making it to the water as the cold freezes them.

The last one I will tell you about is another amazing little creature, the Wood frog. Learning about this frog and many more lives that depend on leaf litter to survive the winters has prompted me to leave most of my leaf cleanup until spring, these tiny little frogs, also like the painted turtle, have a special antifreeze in their system. It enables them to literally freeze solid under the leaves during the winter. Come spring they warm up, thaw out and hop along to find a vernal pool to lay their precious eggs. Another reason when I’m walking a forest trail, I do not go off it.

There are so many more animals I could talk about, but I have chosen a few which I found particularly interesting. Hibernation is triggered by daylight hours, animals will start to gather food, put more leaves in their dens, birds will prepare to fly south, some animals start to change into their winter colours and others get ready to sleep.

Watch out for falling nuts from high in the trees that many animals eat and gather, take it from me, those hurt, I personally need a helmet in my yard, and often they start getting knocked down by the end of July. Berry trees provide fruit for migrating birds to feed upon and flowers for bees and butterflies.  Our mourning cloak butterfly even hibernates under tree bark, emerging in spring where it feeds on the sap the trees produce. Opened up by returning Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers coming back in the spring and other woodpeckers who spend their winters here. As more and more our winters are becoming unpredictable, so are some of our wildlife. So please, if you see an animal you feel may be in distress call your nearest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Like Procyon in Beeton,905.729.0033 or go to ontariowildliferescue.ca to find one nearest you. Call them. Save a life!

Jennifer Howard

Naturalist/photographer

Volunteer at Procyon Wildlife Rehabilitation & Education Center

Beeton

Co-Existing with Bears & Coyotes – May 23rd Presentation

On May 23rd, at the Innisfil Public Library, wildlife photographer and Procyon Wildlife volunteer, Jennifer Howard will be hosting an informative presentation, called Bears & Coyotes. Bear With Us Sanctuary and Coyote Watch Canada will be teaming up with back to back presentations to educate the public on black bears and coyotes. We can co-exist! Let’s learn how!

Co-exisiting with Bears & Coyotes