Nature Notes – Winter Survival

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By Beth Dodd

Are you ready for winter? Do you have good tires on the car and a cozy coat for the cold? Maybe you’re packing your bags for Texas or Arizona. Or would you rather just avoid the whole thing and take a nap until spring?

While you are busy preparing for winter, so are the wild things that live around us. Animals have three basic strategies for surviving the season. Some leave for better climates by migrating. Others stay put and hibernate or prepare to remain active during the cold season. Winter is the most difficult time of the year for wildlife. The season can bring frigid temperatures and bone-chilling winds, snow and ice, and a scarcity of food and water.

Many of our local birds will say adios to Colorado Springs by migrating south for the winter. The longest journey is made by Swainson’s hawks. After raising their chicks in Colorado over the summer, they head south, WAY south. Flocking in groups called “kettles”, they make their way down to Argentina. For individuals who spend the summer in Alaska at the northern end of their range, this means a round trip of about 12,000 miles! Their migrations attract flocks of bird watchers who look for them at well-known migratory points in the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central America.

Another incredible migratory bird is the broad-tailed hummingbird. These tiny green dynamos zip to and from our feeders all summer. Their natural food sources of flower nectar and insects disappear in the winter, so they head south to western central Mexico. This is an incredibly long distance for these tiny fliers to travel. The most amazing part is that they make the trip alone rather than in flocks. This means that the young birds that hatched in Colorado over the summer must find the way to their wintering areas by themselves.

While many birds depart for the season, other animals stay put and prepare to survive Colorado’s worst winter conditions. On top of Pikes Peak, tough little pikas are going about their business on the alpine tundra. Pikas are ridiculously cute, short-eared members of the rabbit family found only at high elevations. You can see them from the Pikes Peak Highway in the summer and hear their high-pitched calls. Pikas store food all summer and fall, gathering and drying plants in the sun to build little haystacks. When winter comes, they tunnel under the snow and munch on dried salad while waiting for spring.

Up in the mountains, beavers also remain active all winter, cozy inside their thick, oiled fur coats and a thick layer of body fat. If the pond around their lodge freezes over, they can snack on stored food. During the summer and fall, they cut green branches from nearby trees and submerge them by poking the ends into the mud in the bottom of the pond. When ice makes it hard to leave the pond to forage, they will use this cache of food to help them survive until spring.

The big brown bat, a devotee of the all-insect diet, takes a middle road, staying in Colorado, but hibernating until insects emerge in the spring. When the weather turns colder, big brown bats look for a cozy spot like a hollow tree or small cave to spend the winter. During hibernation the bat’s circulation slows considerably and its oxygen use and heart rate are greatly reduced. The bat will draw energy from stored body fat, and may lose up to 25 percent of its weight by spring. If the bat did get enough to eat over the summer or is disturbed during hibernation, it may die.

So whether you are planning to sip hot chocolate by the fire, zip down the ski slopes, or visit the in-laws in Arizona this winter, remember that outside your door wild creatures are spending the winter in their own unique ways and waiting for spring.