Spring2010

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

Where Do the Animals Hide in Winter?

Written by Kate Chandler, Associate Professor of English

On a chilly day, a titmouse fluffs feathers to keep warm.


I love winter. I have lots of reasons, but the main one? Staying indoors. Sedentary worker that I am, deep down, I most love being warm and cozy. I do brave going out, but inside I wrap up in my Snuggie (did I actually admit that?), put my computer on my lap, and from the warmth of my recliner (did I just admit that, too?) watch what is going on outdoors.

From my snug space, I wonder about the small animals living "out there." Are the squirrels warm? Can a bird stay cozy? And, goodness, WHERE are they? And what about the turtles, skunks, foxes, groundhogs, even spiders and mice that my husband and I see the rest of the year? I've seen plenty of birds' nests, but I am not sure that birds cuddle down in them when they are not raising young.

Birds do seek shelter, most often in evergreens, dense bushes or hedges, tree cavities or roosting boxes. Some species actually crowd together for warmth. I saw a bird squeeze under one of the barrel tiles on our roof; maybe that is its "box." Since birds are warm-blooded, they do require various ways to warm up, and a richer diet helps. During winter, birds can really use sunflower seeds, which have oil, and suet, which has high-energy fat.

When birds fl uff up, they are keeping warm. Creating air pockets between their feathers improves insulation as do the downy feathers close to their skin. When I see them roosting on branches looking particularly plump, I recognize a bird version of a snowsuit. They can shiver, too, using flight muscles to keep blood flowing. They also lessen heat loss in their legs with arteries and veins that exchange heat. One authoritative source mentions that in extreme cold, birds perch on one leg, drawing the other up, warming it against their body.

As to the burrowers, I wonder how many of our local box turtles tunnel into the enormous mulch mounds near Mother's garden. The piles are so large that any number of animals could have extensive landholdings inside the piles. Although turtles do not seek the warmth required by hot-blooded mammals, their shelters must keep them pretty snug as they rest through winter. Heck, their shells alone may do that.

The mulch pile, downhill from us, is not where our skunks burrow. Judging by the frequency their perfume wafts through our bedroom windows during summer, their den entrance is probably the hole I see dug under the concrete foundation of the shed containing our heat pumps. With their earthen insulation and full fur tails, skunks' underground dens must be downright cozy.

The other denners who have great tails that wrap around for warmth are foxes. While they probably use burrows or dens more frequently, foxes can also live in caves. I've seen a cave that was under a stump with lots of roots, clearly dug out and smoothed by living. It wasn't as enclosed as a burrow (both skunks and foxes, by the way, sometimes take over groundhog burrows), but after reading about foxes' habitats I would bet that cave was for a fox.

The only residences that I regularly see are the Eastern gray squirrel nests. Those are the clumps of sticks and leaves that are visible once oaks and maples have shed their foliage. Looking straight up into bare limbs, the unkempt masses wedged into the forks of branches are large and easy to spot. There could also be squirrel homes in tree trunk hollows, but I haven't located any of those. The messy nests look as if there is enough insulation to keep them warm. They may bring up bark or moss or grass for increased insulation; and since there can be more than one occupant per nest, we can factor in shared body heat

Back in December, I saw for the first time a squirrel adding to its nest. It was vigorously digging. However, I noticed that each time the squirrel raised its head, its mouth was full-and getting fuller. The squirrel was not burying acorns; it was gathering material for its nest. Stuffi ng several leaves into its mouth at once, it sprinted from spot to spot, cramming more in at each stop and swiftly shaping the dry leaves into a manageable ball using teeth and front paws. Then it shoved the wad back into its cheeks. For over five minutes I watched the squirrel gather and mat up the material - that is a long time and a lot of leaf matter. Then it dashed up a pine carrying more than seemed humanly, well, squirrely, possible.

The groundhogs have our favorite shelter. We found both of their burrows. Over the years, we have noticed that the groundhogs change residence twice a year. Early in June, they move to what we call their "summer cottage," a shallow, dug-out shelf flanking a drainage tunnel under our motorcycle garage. This is their country estate, up here near the soybean fields. When the weather cools, they move out. That is when we begin to spot them scooting into and out of holes dug under my mother's gardening shed. The shed is the size of two garages, and the groundhogs have front and rear entrances to a hibernating burrow that surely includes more than one den - their winter estate.

As to the spiders and mice? I don't need to research their shelters. They are snug and warm inside the house with me.