Critters in winter

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By Rick Palsgrove
Eastside Editor

Photo by Darby Barker
A red fox sunbathing in the snow.

On these cold days when you’re cozy and warm under a blanket on your couch, have you ever wondered how animals in the wild cope with winter?

Blacklick Woods Metro Park Naturalist Cody Berkebile said animals have much to teach us about winter survival.

“Over time, humans have learned a lot about wildlife that has helped us survive in cold climates, too,” said Berkebile. “The use of furs to stay warm was vital to our ancestors thousands of years ago. Today, everybody’s light, but remarkably warm, down or synthetic jackets are the result of learning how birds can survive frigid temperatures with just feathers to stay warm. Maybe in the future, better understanding of how some insects, amphibians and reptiles survive freezing temperatures, despite being cold-blooded, can lead to more beneficial advancements in science and medicine.”

According to a display in the Nature Center at Blacklick Woods Metro Park, wild animals handle the winter in different ways including, migration, adaptation, hibernation, brumation, or diapause.

Animals migrate when there is no available food and they cannot adapt to winter otherwise. Some adapt by growing a thick, winter coat or changing their daily habits. Hibernating warm blooded animals find a safe place and go into a deep sleep, or dormancy, where they live off their fat reserves and awaken in the spring. Brumation is when cold blooded animals – such as reptiles, amphibians, or fish – become less active, but do not go to sleep, and live off the sugar in their blood. Insects go into diapause, which is a state of suspended development as eggs, larva, pupa, or adults. The insects live off stored fat in a sheltered spot.

Berkebile said one of the biggest challenges for wildlife in Ohio isn’t finding food or staying warm because these animals have adapted over the years to do that. The challenge is finding available water.

“When temperatures are below freezing, and ice forms, it’s difficult for animals to find drinking water or water to bathe in,” said Berkebile. “Birds rely on clean feathers for flight and for staying warm, so regular bathing is vital. During harsh winters, offering a heated bird bath can be more beneficial to birds and other wildlife than putting out bird seed for them to eat.”

According to Berkebile, while some birds remain in Ohio in the winter, bird migration during the season is primarily due to the availability of food.

“Most birds that leave Ohio in the winter are insectivores, meaning they mostly eat insects,” said Berkebile. “In the winter, Ohio is absent of insect life, so the birds must migrate to find food. The birds that stay in Ohio year round subsist on food other than insects. They may take advantage of the abundance of insects in the warm seasons, but also eat seeds or nuts and rely on this readily available food source in the winter.”

Berkebile said when humans feed animals in the winter it is all about the enjoyment of the people doing the feeding and watching the wildlife.

“It can be interesting to see the different behavior of animals while they feed,” said Berkebile. “Offering birds seed in the winter doesn’t necessarily impact the survivability of the birds or keep them from migrating when they should, it mostly gives people the opportunity to watch and enjoy them.”

When asked what animal he thinks best adapts to an Ohio winter, Berkebile said, “Wood frogs. They have one of the most interesting adaptations to survive winter in Ohio, where freezing temperatures regularly occur. They produce chemicals in their body to protect them from internal freezing, allowing them to survive many freeze-thaw cycles with limited tissue damage.”

For more information about wildlife or Metro Parks events, visit metroparks.net.

According to Metro Parks naturalists, here’s how some animals cope with winter:

•The midland painted turtle seeks deep water and burrows into the bottom mud or debris. What small amount of oxygen this turtle needs comes from the water it absorbs through the inner lining of its mouth.

•A groundhog will eat a pound of food a day in autumn to prepare for winter. Groundhogs burrow under the frost line in late fall. Their body temperature dips from 98 degrees to 38 degrees as they weather the winter in their burrows and their heartbeats decrease from 80 to 5 beats per minute.

•The American Black Bear adds 30 pounds to its body by fall before hibernating for five to seven months. During hibernation the bears do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate. However, they do not experience any muscle or bone atrophy. While hibernating, they can go 20 seconds between heartbeats and take one breath per minute.

•The banded woolly bear caterpillar hides under leaf litter.

•The mourning cloak butterfly and the question mark butterfly hide in tree crevices, wood piles, or under roof shingles to wait out the winter. They are one of the first butterflies to emerge in the spring.

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