How Animals Cope with Winter

Approaching Winter

How Animals Cope with Winter Changes

by Dr. Carla Gull

As fall winds down, animals are making final preparations for winter; each deals with the dropping temperatures and limited food in unique ways.

This least weasel is injured and being kept by Foxwood Raptor and Wildlife Center in Bristol. It is the only known least weasel in captivity in the United States.
This least weasel is injured and being kept by Foxwood Raptor and Wildlife Center in Bristol. It is the only known least weasel in captivity in the United States.

Migration Some animals, mostly birds, move south to look for food in the colder months. The large Turkey Vultures and noisy Sandhill Cranes are moving south. Many ducks, geese, warblers, and songbirds also migrate.  Our area is the wintering ground for the dark-eyed Junco, which can often be found on the ground under bird feeders. Some butterflies, like the monarch, migrate as well.

Torpor Some animals go into a “light” hibernation. They may awaken easily and sleep for several days to several months. This helps conserve energy and the animal will need fewer resources. Raccoons, skunks, opossum, and chipmunks all experience torpor, with the black bear sleeping for longer time periods.

Hibernation This is a full sleep that is hard to wake up from. The body temperature is lowered and the heart rate can slow to 3-4 beats a minute, conserving energy and resources. Woodchucks and bats are true hibernators in our area, as well as reptiles and amphibians. Some frogs may go beneath the leaf litter while others bury themselves in mud.

Adaptations Many animals adapt or make changes to survive the winter. They may change what they eat, grow extra fur or feathers, store food, etc. The uncommon least weasel changes to a white coat and can sense animals below the snow. Beavers and squirrels store food. Coyotes change eating patterns, eating more meat than berries and seeds.

Diapause Some insects go through a hibernation called diapause, which is connected to when the days get shorter rather than the temperature. Insects like the bald-faced hornet mostly die off except for the queen who overwinters under bark or the ground.  Other insects may lay eggs before dying with the colder temperatures.

Just as we add layers, boot, and coats as winter approaches, animals in the wild adjust their behaviors to survive until spring.


Dr. Carla Gull blogs at InsideOutsideMichiana.com.
She is often seen with her four tag-along explorers in the greater Michiana area.