Wildlife in Winter

Elk foraging on a winter day

“The winter’s sleep was long and deep….” from an English hymn

Our mountains are wonderful, green places in summer because of extra moisture and cooler temperatures. But in winter, the same conditions bring extra snow and possible difficulties for wildlife.  So, hibernate or not?

Several mountain residents truly hibernate : they eat heartily in fall to lay on a special kind of fat, retire to burrows or dens in early winter, and “sleep” until spring.  They neither eat nor drink all winter as their bodies undertake a very specialized type of fat-burning metabolism–which defines them as true hibernators.  Black bears and marmots are examples and we’ll see no evidence of them until March or April.

Snowshoe hare track

Some creatures remain quite active all winter like deer, rabbits, coyotes and bobcats. While snowshoeing we see their tracks leading to the places they sought food.  Deer, elk and snowshoe hares all feed more heavily on “browse” or the shrubby tips of fir or aspen trees than in summer.  Their trails past the clipped off tips of low branches tell their story. 

Snowshoe hares in particular are at home in deep snow because of those extra-large, fuzzy feet.  They can rocket across the top of the snow from their hiding places if threatened.

Omnivorous coyotes have lost their summer supply of green plants, berries and grasshoppers and rely heavily on a diet of rodents.  Their scat is matted with soft fur in winter and their lengthy trails show them investigating every hole and hollow for an unwary creature.

Bobcats are ambush hunters and their habits don’t change so drastically come winter.  In fact, since other creatures may have difficulty running through snow, the cats may have a slight advantage with their large, soft feet.

But there is a “in-between” strategy for the winter.  Squirrels and mice will “hole up” during especially cold periods in insulated nests and drowse, their breathing and heart rate slowing, but otherwise having a normal metabolism.  And as soon as a sunny day warms the woods a bit, they are out again eating from the caches of food they have set aside for the winter.  Our Red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) can sometimes have huge middens among mature forest where they store tasty cones from Douglas Fir or Englemann Spruce to tide them through the winter.

I rather like the squirrels’ approach myself.  Curl up on the worst days in a snug little nest, but come out into the glittering winter world when the sun shines again.  Hooray for winter in the mountains!

About Outspire

The natural outdoor world is exciting, restorative, and infinitely fascinating. More people should spend time there!
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