How does wildlife cope with the cold?
With the weather in Texas being below freezing for many days in a row, you may be as worried as I am about the wildlife. Although I know they are better equipped for cold winter than humans are, I needed to know more to ease my own mind, and then what, if anything, I could do to help them.
Nature is pretty amazing, and wildlife has the ability to adapt to harsh weather. There are several ways they do this.
• Hibernation (such as the box turtle, bumble bees, garter snake, prairie dogs, geckos, ladybugs)
• Torpor (a state of reduced metabolism where the body temperature is lowered, requiring less calories to maintain heat)
• The natural insulation of their winter coats and feathers
• Conserving energy and fattening up in the fall
• Shivering to raise metabolic rate and generate body heat temporarily.
It’s comforting to know that all mammals grow some kind of a winter coat, and many have built up fat reserves to help them get through the winter if there isn’t enough food. Many will stay in their dens to conserve energy and stay warm.
Similar to mammals, some birds grow extra feathers in a late fall molt that provides a thicker protection. Their legs and feet are covered with “specialized” scales that minimize heat loss. They can also control the temperature of their legs and feet separately from their bodies by constricting blood flow to their extremities, thereby reducing heat loss without risking frostbite.
Birds literally fluff their feathers to trap air which is then heated by their body. Some birds, such as hummingbirds, chickadees, and swifts will go into a mild state of topor to conserve energy as a way to survive cold temperatures.
Beavers have a slick, greased, waterproof coat on the outside and dense fur underneath.
Ducks and geese have a doubled-layered plume with down feathers close to their body covered by longer, oily feathers to waterproof them and an awesome network of veins that carries warm blood down to their feet.
Opossums have the most difficult winters of all. They don’t grow as thick a coat as some of the other animals, and their ears and tails are furless. They also rarely share a nest with other opossums. They do tend to stay in their den during bad weather, but because they don’t stay in the same spot for very long, they can be more vulnerable when looking for a new den and out foraging.
Raccoons have a thick coat and tend to stay in their den when the weather is bad.
Skunks also stay in their dens during cold, harsh weather. And interestingly, because of their gentle nature, they may spend the winter in groups making survival easier by sharing heat.
Squirrels eat a lot of food during the fall and build up their fat reserve. Their coat and tail can help protect them from the cold, but they rely on their nest for protection. They may also share a nest and stay close to each other for warmth.
So what can you do to help them through this weather?
• Provide a warm den
• Build a brush pile out of leaves and sticks for them to shelter in. Or if you have a brush pile currently, leave it be for now. Small animals and insects will find it and use it as shelter from the cold.
• Melt a hole in the ice on ponds to allow the wildlife to drink, and enter and exit the water. Fill a saucepan with hot water and set it on the ice until a hole has been melted. Do not hit or crack ice as this can send shockwaves through the water that will harm wildlife
• Melt the water in birdbaths with the method above.
• Be careful when you turn compost heaps. These are often warm and can be a winter resort for frogs, toads, and other animals.
• If you don't have a birdbath, provide a shallow dish or container of water. Switch out if frozen.
• Make an insect or bug hotel (do an internet search on how to do this) and put up in a sheltered position. Overwintering ladybirds and lacewings will find this useful
• Leave healthy herbaceous and hollow-stemmed plants unpruned until early spring. These can provide homes for overwintering insects and animals
• If you start your car, check under or bang a little on the hood before you turn it on. Your car's engine is a warm, dry place where small animals might seek shelter.
• Check bonfires before they are lit for sheltering and hibernating animals
• The area under bird feeders can be the local diner for a number of mammals.
Share any ideas you may have to help our wildlife make it through these below normal temps in North Texas!