Cold-weather survival for the winter ahead

Small animals and birds must use many different strategies to stay alive when winter's freezing temperatures hit.

  • Jan. 4, 2012 10:00 a.m.

Freezing temperatures are a huge challenge for small animals and birds. They must use many different strategies to stay alive.

Hibernating insects and spiders go deep into mulch and leaves on the ground, or huddle in the cracks of tree bark and buildings.

The yellow jackets that buzzed our summer picnics die off, leaving the queen wasp denned up alone, ready to emerge and start a new colony in spring.

Many butterflies, like the swallowtail, over-winter as a chrysalis, while the mourning cloak hibernates as an adult and is often the first to emerge in spring.

The chorus of tree frogs and the resonating croak of bullfrogs go silent as the mercury drops and the frogs burrow into the mud at the pond bottom.

Garter snakes also den up, becoming torpid and hibernating under a pile of rocks.

Only the ubiquitous eastern grey squirrel seems oblivious to winter!

Small birds form mixed feeding flocks to help them find food and be alert for predators.

It is not unusual to see chickadees, kinglets, sparrows, finches and juncos together, keeping on the move and fluffing their feathers to stay warm.

They can cling to branches even in frigid weather because their legs and feet have scales and no sweat glands, as well as an intricate blood flow.

Song birds survive winter by eating energy-rich food such as berries, seeds and insects.

Fruits of Pacific crab apple, mountain ash and hawthorn attract American robins, varied thrushes and purple finches.

Pine siskins and red crossbills become locally abundant some years, moving around irruptively in search of seeding trees.

Insect eaters must be resourceful in winter.

Fox sparrows and spotted towhees scratch in the fallen leaves with both feet simultaneously as they search for food.

Downy woodpeckers pry open rose galls to find larvae, and the northern flicker uses its long, sharp bill to probe the ground for hibernating ant colonies.

The related red-breasted sapsucker is sometimes seen locally in midwinter, checking up on its sap wells. It taps the sugary sap of coniferous trees by drilling horizontal rows of holes in the trunk.

To help wildlife survive, consider planting suitable shrubs and trees in your garden and maintain a good layer of mulch.

Anne Murray, the author of two nature books available in local book stores, writes monthly in the Peace Arch News –