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Winter squirrel and hollow log

My bird feeder has been occupied non-stop since winter weather finally shifted into my area. To judge from the stream of chickadees, titmice, cardinals and blue jays digging in the sunflower seeds, not to mention their confused examinations when the feeder is empty, my neighborhood birds really appreciate the seed I put out. And when the feeder empties, I swear the birds start peeking in my window, cheeping for me to come fill it up again.

Truth be told, though, I know that these birds, and the squirrel herd that accompanies them, don't need me to feed them. My local wildlife is well-adapted to manage winter without human help. How they do it is almost more interesting than watching the parade of feeder visitors.

Surprisingly, some of the heartiest winter survivalists are the tiniest: ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, little bitty birds that weigh about as much as a pair of pennies, spend their days frantically searching out insect eggs, larvae, and hibernating adult insects to eat. Kinglets need to eat at least twice their own body weight to maintain their metabolism during the day, but no one is really sure what they do overnight. They may huddle together in sheltered holes in trees, or they may spend the dark in a state of torpor.

In torpor, an animal's metabolism and temperature drops, and it falls into a sleep-like state so that it saves precious energy until the sun rises and it can find food again. You can think of torpor like short-term hibernation. Lots of animals, including squirrels, raccoons, and other birds such as chickadees, fall into torpor to keep from starving during brief periods of cold (through the night, for example), or when food is scarce due to snow or ice. When the conditions improve, torpid animals can wake up to find food and replenish their fat stores to be ready for the next bout of bad weather.

True hibernators don't wake up for weeks. After packing on fat through the summer and fall, skunks, woodchucks, bats, frogs, salamanders, and bears crawl into their cozy dens and fall asleep. Sort've. Hibernation uses the same strategy of dropping metabolism and temperature to extremely low rates, maximizing the mileage on the animal's stored fuel. Hibernating animals may wake up on warm days to forage, but once they've filled their bellies, they go right back into their dens to wait out the rest of the winter.

Other animals gather up stockpiles of food to provision themselves through the winter. Muskrats fill their dens with roots and plants. Beavers do the same with sticks and branches. Snug underground with their bursting pantries, they don't need to hibernate at all. Blue jays and chickadees cache seeds and other food in dozens or hundreds of different hiding places. Somehow they manage to remember where to find most of their hidden supplies.

Many animals have to work much harder to find enough food in the winter, but their lifestyle and instincts are carefully calibrated to give each species its best shot at survival. Mammals like deer and foxes don't need any help from people at all. These animals can become overly acclimated to humans, and eventually become more than a nuisance—which usually ends badly for the animal.

Even though wildlife doesn't need human help, providing seed to birds (and inevitably squirrels) brings them close enough to appreciate without binoculars, and it doesn't cause too much interruption of their normal lives. Many northern birds spend the winter ranging about in mixed-species flocks in search of food. If they empty out a feeder, birds will simply use their wings to move on to the next best food source! But more than birdseed, wintering birds need cozy, safe places to hide and sleep, and fresh, clean water sources. A yard with brush piles and shrubs, or a heated birdbath will be more useful to your bird neighbors than a feeder full of seed, no matter what those titmice peering in your window seem to say!

About Erin Gettler
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.

Headshot of Erin

Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.