By Eric Duran
When winter weather started, the natural coping mechanisms of the animals in our midst kicked into gear. There are three most common strategies that wild animals can use to get through the winter. Some animals leave for the winter, migrating south. Some animals just go to sleep all winter — they hibernate. Some animals just try to fatten up and hoard resources, and they just stay awake and stay in place for the winter. We’re going to look at those strategies and which animals in our area employ them.
When things start to get a bit too cold for some animals, they leave. Of course you’ve heard that birds fly south for the winter. Fortunately for those who love to track and watch them, for many of the birds that migrate, we ARE south for the winter. Migration is a good strategy for animals whose food disappears in winter or whose bodies cannot handle the cold weather further north.
In the fall, many of the birds that migrate to Central or South America pass through this part of Texas. However, many birds head down to the Gulf Coast to overwinter, like the Northern Flicker, a medium sized brown woodpecker. (We also get American Robbins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a whole slew of ducks who are all north for the summer breeding season.) During the fall, we also get some species of butterfly, moth, and large dragonflies that migrate down to Texas to escape the cold of Northern climes.
Some animals can put up with cold weather, but only if they go to sleep — and hibernation is something deeper than normal sleep. Of course, bears are famous for hibernation, but they’re not the only creatures that fatten up in late summer and fall and then sleep all winter long. There are a whole host of mammals that hibernate, but most cold-blooded vertebrates do, too, if they live in a part of the world that experiences low seasonal temperatures.
You may notice that frogs and toads, like this Green Tree Frog, disappear in the winter. That’s because they’re hibernating, along with fish, salamanders, reptiles and some invertebrates. Some animals, though, go into a rather shallow form of winter dormancy, something lighter than “hibernation,” that they wake from quickly when there are spells of warmer winter weather.
Toughing it out
The animals who don’t hibernate or migrate just bulk up in fall, or hoard food somewhere, and then put up with the colder weather and lower food resources as best they can. This category includes our native Eastern Cottontail and Marsh Rabbits. Wild cats, wild dogs, weasels, deer and tree squirrels all stay awake during winter months, also. We also have a number of native resident birds that stay put and don’t migrate away, such as Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Mockingbirds, and Eastern Screech Owls.
Winter is actually a great time to go wildlife watching along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Drop by the Nature Center sometime soon, take a look around and give a nod to our winter residents. Some of my other favorite places to look for wildlife in winter that are a short journey away are Armand Bayou Nature Center, Brazos Bend State Park and W.G. Jones State Forest north of Houston. It’s one of the largest “working” forests in the U.S., overseen by the Texas A&M Forest Service to provide resource education, and you can learn more about it here.
As always, if you have any questions about wildlife in winter or anything else about our local environment or critters, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, NatureDiscoveryCenter.org. You can read all his seasonal Wired to Nature columns by using the QR code at the top of this column or by visiting EssentialsNews.com and clicking on the “Wired to Nature” listing on the menu bar.