For anyone or anything living outdoors, winter is a tough time of year. The low angle and short duration of the little sunlight that is available makes warmth hard to come by.
Food is also in short supply. Seeds, frozen fruits, hay and the occasional dried fungus can be had if you know where to look, but insect protein and fresh green plant growth are a bigger challenge.
Animals deal with the harsh reality of our winters in different ways. Most bird species, for example, simply leave our region for half of the year. Migration is not exclusive to birds, though. Some bat species also migrate. So do Monarch butterflies, Variegated Meadowhawk dragonflies and a few other insect species.
Many migrants, such as hawks and hummingbirds, go to South America for the winter. Some gull species migrate east and west to the milder climates of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Other birds, like Trumpeter Swans, migrate only as far south as Yellowstone National Park while some bat species migrate into the Rocky Mountains where they curl up in caves to wait out the winter.
For non-human animals without wings, migration is impossible. So hibernation is the order the day for some. Bears head for the forests of the foothills and lowlands. Ground squirrels tunnel beneath the earth and skunks seek out the nearest pet-free back yard with a deck, garden shed or stairway to burrow under.
Those animals who can’t leave and who are too small to hibernate must do the best they can. Black-capped Chickadees, for example, face the conditions of our winters by eating steadily throughout the day. When it’s too cold to move around, they enter into a state of mini-hibernation known as topor that can last hours or even a few days.
For species like these, bird feeders and heated bird baths become convenient survival tools. Black-oil sunflower seeds provide easily accessible calories while heated water serves as a source of drinking water and an opportunity to wash the bacteria out of feathers.
Meanwhile the ground beneath bird feeders becomes equally valuable to the rodents who spend the winter in our garages and wood piles. What the birds and tree squirrels leave behind is solid gold to ground-bound rodents who are unable or unwilling the climb up to feeder-level.
The rest of our animals are left to dig through the snow with their claws and hooves or hammer away at layers of bark in search of burrowing insects.