AKRON — As winter begins drifting into the Ohio Valley, people are pulling on parkas, adding extra blankets to their beds, and building cozy fires to keep away the cold. But what about wildlife? How do they survive the cold months of winter? Over time, wildlife have adapted and learned to cope with the climatic changes they face in their habitats. Some animals hibernate and some migrate, while others stay put, growing thick coats and consuming extra food to keep them warm according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).
Hibernation is one of the most intriguing methods animals use to survive cold weather. When an animal hibernates, its heart rate, body temperature and other life processes slow down, putting them into a kind of a “deep sleep.”
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are one of Ohio’s true hibernators, said Geoff Westerfield, wildlife biologist with the ODNR Division of Wildlife.
“Groundhogs hibernate nearly the entire winter,” Westerfield said. “They won’t reemerge until the first few weeks of February, when some signs of spring begin to show.”
During a groundhog’s hibernation – which lasts an average of five months – its body temperature lowers by almost half and its heart slows down from 160 to four beats per minute.
When outside temperatures drop dangerously low, skunks, raccoons, chipmunks, and opossums are known to go into a temporary hibernation. During those frigid periods, they seek shelter in trees, logs, beneath rocks or underground where they “hole up” and sleep for about five days until the weather breaks.
Many migrating birds fly thousands of miles away from Ohio, seeking warmer climates and nutrient-rich habitats. Other flying creatures – such as the Indiana and little brown bat – not only migrate, they hibernate too. Roosting inside dark, comfy caves, these bats often ride out winter in southern Ohio or just south of the Buckeye State border.
Frogs, snakes, turtles and most other cold-blooded animals crawl into holes or burrows where they remain inactive all winter. Some snakes gather family-style in the same den and weave together in a “ball” to help insulate themselves.
Whether hibernating or staying active, body fat is an important factor in an animal’s winter survival. In the fall, birds and mammals eat extra food so that when supplies are scarce, their bodies can draw energy from fat reserves.
Watching wildlife scurrying along the ice and snow can tug at the human heart strings. Many people think feeding these wild creatures is humane, but wildlife experts urge well-meaning people to think about their actions before feeding any wildlife.
“Feeding wildlife should be conducted in a manner where wild animals will not make a direct connection between food and humans. Clean, well-maintained bird feeders are a good example of how to enjoy the presence of wildlife, but also how to avoid that direct connection. Once a wild animal loses its natural fear of humans, it can become habituated which is bad for the animal as well as for people,” Westerfield said. He also explained that the unnatural gathering of many species to one food source can promote the spread of disease and often the foods provided do not meet the nutritional needs the animals require. For example, feeding bread to ducks and geese is terrible for their digestion and can potentially be fatal for them.
Animals will also switch their diets based on the foods available to them. For non-migratory birds such as cardinals and some robins, with their warm season diet of insects, worms and other invertebrates no longer available, they switch to a winter diet of seeds and fruit. Westerfield suggests an alternative to placing food outside for wildlife and instead being mindful of what is planted on a landowner’s property. Incorporating a variety of plants, shrubs, and trees can provide a assortment of food resources for wildlife including species that provide food into the winter months. Crab apples, wild berries, and other plants that produce seeds late in fall are great choices. It is also important to provide wildlife with shelter. Native species of evergreen trees and shrubs give animals protection from wind and rain and these plant species can sustain in Ohio’s climate.
If you own a larger parcel of land in the country, brush piles and thick patches of briers provide excellent winter cover for songbirds, cottontail rabbits, and other small animals. Planting food patches of corn, sorghum and millet give numerous wild animals a good source of energy to maintain their body heat in cold weather conditions.
Come spring time, don’t expect the deer you fed all winter to find greener pastures. By then, they will have become accustomed to the free meal and think it’s perfectly acceptable munching on your garden of delicate spring flowers and tender vegetables.
Beware of feeding Canada geese in your yard or local park. They might decide to take up permanent residence, making a mess of the grass next summer.
Furthermore, don’t forget about the importance of fresh, clean water for wildlife to consume and in which birds can bathe. A simple, heated bird bath can provide an excellent source of water that is otherwise tough for wild creatures to find in frigid temperatures.