Humans can help animals get through winter | Island Wildlife | Nov. 4

I said to my wife, “Well, we’ve got the darkest three months of the year in front of us,” followed by a deep sigh.  I’m sure she gets tired of my “darkest days of the year” countdown each year but she had a good response this time:  “You don’t have anything to moan about. Think about the poor wild animals.”

She’s right. Humans, at least most of us in the United States, avoid the cold winter by taking refuge in our homes, cars and workplaces. Wild animals don’t have these options.

But wildlife have developed methods for coping with the winter.  Some pack up and leave. Robins, ducks, seabirds, most hummingbirds, and many bird species go south for the winter. In fact, it’s a great time of year to get out of your warm house and do some birding. On lakes and shores, you’ll see lots of birds that normally aren’t here, birds migrating south.

Don’t you wish we could just head south for the winter?  Oh wait, we can.  There’s a reason why humans spending winters in the south are called “snow birds.”

Some wild animals avoid winter by sleeping through it. Bears and chipmunks hibernate for the winter by spending summer and fall fattening up (black bears increase their weight by 35 percent or more), then snoozing the winter away in a dark den.

Often when I wake up on these dark mornings, I think about going outside, digging myself a den, grabbing a few boxes of Twinkies, and telling my wife to wake me up in March.  She probably wouldn’t go for it, but at least she wouldn’t have to listen to me carry on about the dark days.

Other wild animals cope with winter by storing food. Squirrels and rodents are particularly industrious.  They cache hordes of pine cones, moss, and other delicacies.  Imagine spending your fall wandering around the woods, picking up moss and pine cones and stuffing your house full.

I thought about doing this, but I’m guessing my wife would be irked if she opened our closet door and unleashed a landslide of pine cones.

This summer, I let a pile of firewood sit for three months. When I finally got around to stacking it all, I found about four square feet of moss wedged into the pile. Some hard-working squirrel or rodent had carefully harvested this moss off trees and stored it in “my” woodpile.  I took all of the moss and put it in a new, little wood pile, since I would have felt horrible destroying this animal’s winter food supply.

Most of the wild animals that stick around for the winter simply tough it out. The raccoons, opossums, coyotes, deer, and birds that winter over all put on some extra fat in the fall, grow thicker fur, and do their best to make it through the dark days of winter.  It’s a difficult time for them – food is scarce and cold temperatures and wet weather make it hard to stay warm. Unfortunately, some of them don’t make it.  In particular, many of the year’s juveniles don’t survive the winter.

You can help them. Try to leave or create some brush piles in your yard. Animals will be grateful for this shelter.  Especially when we have freezing temperatures, be sure to keep your bird feeders full and provide a fresh (unfrozen) supply of water outside. And keep your eyes open for animals in need of medical attention.

During the late fall and winter months, we receive very few patients at West Sound Wildlife because all of the humans are indoors and don’t find the injured, sick, and hypothermic wild animals that need our help.

I think my wife will still have the pleasure of hearing me whine about the darkest days, but at least she won’t have to deal with me sleeping in a hole in the ground all winter or packing our house with food.

Maybe, though, I can talk her into boarding a plane and winging our way south for a while.

Kol Medina is executive director of West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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