By Eric Duran
Winter is almost upon us, such as it is in Houston. Though we may not have the long severe cold winters that are common to the North, it does get cold enough here to warrant certain behaviors and lifestyle changes among our native animals. For the most part, fruits, seeds, and insects are less available as a food source, so winter strategies are called for. This month, we’re going to look at a few different animals and their strategies for making it through the winter.
Common nighthawks breed and nest in the Houston area. You may know them as large bat-shaped or boomerang-like birds that fly around at night over lighted parking lots and sports fields in the summertime. They open their wide mouths and scoop up flying insects, sometimes hundreds in a night. They make a loud PEENT PEENT call as they circle overhead. However, by winter — they are gone. Every fall, the nighthawks take to the wing and fly south for the winter, settling in for a few months in South America. The nighthawk’s strategy for dealing with winter food scarcity is migration.
For other birds further north, however, the Gulf Coast of Texas may be “South for the Winter” — birds such as ducks, Cedar waxwings, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (a kind of migratory woodpecker).
Gulf Coast Toads are the common yard frog that many of us know from our gardens. These bumpy little terrestrial amphibians are often heard calling in a loud high-pitched trill from ditches and ponds after heavy summer rains. Like most frogs, they feed mainly on insects and small invertebrates. They are also cold-blooded, so their bodies don’t do so well in the low temperatures of winter. Toads do what bears do in wintertime, they go to sleep — for months! Long winter dormancy is referred to as hibernation among warm-blooded mammals, but among cold-blooded amphibians, reptiles and fish, it’s called brumation. Our local box turtles, Green Anoles, and Gulf Coast Toads all brumate for the winter.
A lot of animals, like Northern Cardinals and White-tailed Deer, are here year-round and stay active year-round. It’s basically the strategy of “deal with it.” Like animals that migrate and animals that hibernate (or brumate), they do need to prepar for upcoming food scarcity, though. Like the animals that migrate or go dormant, they spend the late summer and/or fall feeding as much as they can, to fatten up for what’s to come. Other animals that do this are squirrels, blue jays and coyotes. Although many of these animals are generalists, and their openness to what they’re willing to eat helps them get through tough winters.
If you’re interested in finding out more about animals and their wintering strategies, come out to the Nature Discovery Center and see if you can find some our winter birds or squirrels bringing stored pecans back tot heir nests. Your kids may enjoy one of our winter break day camps, like Winter Adaptations on Dec. 20 or Winter Birds on Dec. 30. To find out more, call 713-667-6550 or visit naturediscoverycenter.org/activities/day-camps.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire.