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  • Writer's pictureRobert Loewendick

Wild, Winter Nights

Ohio just slid out from under a couple weeks of frigid temps. Barely above zero during the day and back to below zero as night fell. Meteorologists are claiming several inches of snow and cold temps will back in a day or two, so enjoy the sunny day and double digit temps a few steps above freezing. I’ll take the warm up, as I was kicked in the chest by bronchitis as the New Year opened the door and the out of doors is calling!

During the last couple weeks, the media warned pet owners to get their furry friends indoors to avoid misery or worse. So what happens to the wild ones? Of course the wildlife has ways and means to deal with weather that domesticated critters don’t have. Some go south to escape the hardships of winter. Some go underground to hide from the fur frosting freezes. Some slide into tree holes to keep out of the howling winter winds. And others simply keep on keeping on.

Deer and rabbits scrounge for leftover foods; leaves, twigs, nuts hidden under a carpet of decaying leaves, and any remnants of agricultural crops lying in the fields. Although the food available for winter consumption may not be at the top of the preferred menu of some, the available foods will supply the animal with the proper energy to deal with cold weather. The cottontail rabbit will eat the blandest fare in the wild—tree bark and twigs, but the rabbit is not an overly active in winter. The cottontail huddles in its ‘squat’ until the warmest time of the day, then cruises for a meal.

Squirrels, muskrats, and beaver will store their food in the fall for later eating. Squirrels are not true hibernators, but they are ‘torpor’ hibernators. Torpor hibernators are short-term hibernators, falling into a deep sleep during extremely cold nights, but can be easily awakened. Some squirrels will sleep for a few days at a time, waking for a snack and then right back to bed to conserve the energy gained from the feed.

The true hibernator doesn’t store any food away for winter eating. The true hibernator has provided itself with a thick layer of fat between its muscle and skin that will be drawn from to sustain the animal during its winter nap. The absorbed fat does not enter the digestive system, but goes directly into the muscle and blood structure. During hibernation the animals’ life support system is nearly shutdown. The body temperature drops, breathing is slowed, and the metabolism of the animal is reduced to just enough to stay alive. A species of the Rocky Mountain ground squirrel’s body temperature drops to only three degrees above the freezing point of water. It is said that when the squirrel is removed from its den, it looks as if it has frozen to death. But once the squirrel is warmed up, the small rodent will spring into activity once more as if spring has arrived.

The most famous hibernator is not truly a deep hibernator. Many photos and stories have been shown and told about the bear’s winter siesta. The primary reason that a bear hibernates is that it has no, or a greatly diminished, food supply. The bear prepares its bed for its five to seven month nap by gathering leaves, moss, and other materials from the forest floor. These materials are used to line the den that is dug earlier in the season. Since the females give birth to its young while hibernating, some dens are built with an extra chamber for the young.

The heart rate of the bear will drop from its average summer rate of 70 beats per minute to its average hibernation rate of 20 beats per minute. Because of their thick insulating fur they are able to maintain a high body temperature. This higher body temperature will retain proper brain function so the mother can take care of the cubs needs. Because the bears body temperature never drops to a true hibernator’s degree and slide into a deep hibernator’s sleep, it is not uncommon to see a bear or raccoon out on a mild winter’s day lumbering around as if it were sleep walking.

Hawks and owls will actually fly south until they locate an area that offers good hunting if the need arise. If a sufficient supply of food is available for the birds of prey, they will remain in their home range for the winter. What a sight of nature it is to see, when a Red-tailed hawk dives to the snow-covered ground to latch onto a squirrel out to stretch from its daylong nap. Yep, the frigid temps are not the only hazard waiting for the wild ones during the winter season.

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