Wildlife in Winter: What’s Out There, Anyway?

Wildlife in Winter by Shiela Fuller

It’s cold outside and there is snow on the ground. Have you ever wondered what happens to wildlife in winter?

Wild creatures have been preparing for winter long before it arrives. During the summer and fall some animals are getting ready for hibernation.

Hibernation occurs because food becomes difficult to find when the air outside gets cold. It is a sleep-like state when the animal’s body temperature will lower, their breathing will slow down and body functions like urinating and defecating will cease. The black bear hibernates. In late summer or fall, the black bear will locate a suitable den and then prepare it for winter sleeping by filling it with leaves and debris for bedding. Chipmunks and brown bats hibernate, too. Chipmunks prepare for hibernation by filling their cheeks until they are bursting with seeds. Then they will store them in their burrows for winter.  Brown bats will huddle in clusters with a lot of other bats to keep warm during the coldest months.

Reptiles like garter snakes and box turtles bruminate. When the temperatures turn cold, the reptiles will protect themselves by burrowing below the freeze line in the soil. The reptile’s body functions will slow down just like the mammals that hibernate. The reptiles stay awake but are sluggish.

Not all animals hibernate or bruminate. For the animals that don’t, winter can be hard on them. Food can be difficult to find under a layer of snow. This will prompt some animals to venture to locations outside of their normal range leaving tracks as they go. Tracking animals can be fun on your first snow day.      

possum prints in the first snow of December 2014.

possum prints in the first snow of December 2014.

Before you head outside in the snow for your track walk, look up what kinds of animals are found in your region of the country and draw simple pictures of their tracks. A reference book like Mammal Tracks & Sign: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbroch may be helpful. When you go outside, take your drawings and you will have your own track identification guide. Take pictures of the tracks, too.

The first tracks you see might be your own. Notice that you leave a trail as you walk. What kind of shape do your boots make in the snow? Are your tracks close together or far apart? Step in the tracks of another person. Make running tracks, if the snow is not too deep.

Search for animal tracks. Do you have a dog? Take your dog along for the winter walk. Check out your dog’s tracks in the snow. Compare your tracks to your dog’s.
Look for bird tracks under a bird feeder. Are they all the same or different? Follow the birds’ tracks. Why do they end?    Here’s a link to some tracks:


Shiela Fuller has been a Cornell University Project Feeder Watch participant for many years and an avid birder since 1988. Currently, she enjoys writing picture books, yoga, chicken raising, wildlife photography, and is the legacy keeper for her family.