Manataka American Indian Council





Researched and Shared by Mèssochwen Tëme

The weather gets colder, days get shorter and leaves turn color and fall off the trees. Soon, winter is here. Snow covers the ground. People live in warm houses and wear heavy coats outside. Our food comes from the grocery store. But what happens to the animals?

Animals do many different, amazing things to get through the winter. Some of them "migrate." This means they travel to other places where the weather is warmer or they can find food.

Many birds migrate in the fall. Because the trip can be dangerous, some travel in large flocks. For example, geese fly in noisy, "V"-shaped groups. Other kinds of birds fly alone. How do they know when it is time to leave for the winter? Scientists are still studying this. Many see migration as part of a yearly cycle of changes a bird goes through. The cycle is controlled by changes in the amount of daylight and the weather. Birds can fly very long distances. For example, the Arctic tern nests close to the North Pole in the summer. In autumn, it flies south all the way to Antarctica. Each spring it returns north again. Most birds migrate shorter distances. But how do they find their way to the same place each year? Birds seem to navigate like sailors once did, using the sun, moon and stars for direction. They also seem to have a compass in their brain for using the Earth's magnetic field.

Other animals migrate, too. There are a few mammals, like some bats, caribou and elk, and whales that travel in search of food each winter. Many fish migrate. They may swim south, or move into deeper, warmer water. Insects also migrate. Some butterflies and moths fly very long distances.

For example, Monarch butterflies spend the summer in Canada and the Northern U.S. They migrate as far south as Mexico for the winter. Most migrating insects go much shorter distances. Many, like termites and Japanese beetles, move downward into the soil. Earthworms also move down, some as far as six feet below the surface.

Some animals remain and stay active in the winter. They must adapt to the changing weather. Many make changes in their behavior or bodies. To keep warm, animals may grow new, thicker fur in the fall.

On weasels and snowshoe rabbits, the new fur is white to help them hide in the snow. Food is hard to find in the winter. Some animals, like squirrels, mice and beavers, gather extra food in the fall and store it to eat later. Some, like rabbits and deer, spend winter looking for moss, twigs, bark and leaves to eat.

Other animals eat different kinds of food as the seasons change. The red fox eats fruit and insects in the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, it can not find these things, so instead it eats small rodents. Animals may find winter shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks or leaves, or underground.

Some mice even build tunnels through the snow. To try to stay warm, animals like squirrels and mice may huddle close together. Certain spiders and insects may stay active if they live in frost-free areas and can find food to eat. There are a few insects, like the winter stone fly, crane fly, and snow fleas, that are normally active in winter. Also, some fish stay active in cold water during the winter.

Some animals "hibernate" for part or all of the winter. This is a special, very deep sleep. The animal's body temperature drops, and its heartbeat and breathing slow down. It uses very little energy. In the fall, these animals get ready for winter by eating extra food and storing it as body fat. They use this fat for energy while hibernating. Some also store food like nuts or acorns to eat later in the winter. Bears, skunks, chipmunks, and some bats hibernate.

Cold-blooded animals like fish, frogs, snakes and turtles have no way to keep warm during the winter. Snakes and many other reptiles find shelter in holes or burrows, and spend the winter inactive, or dormant. This is similar to hibernation.

Water makes a good shelter for many animals. When the weather gets cold, they move to the bottom of lakes and ponds. There, frogs, turtles and many fish hide under rocks, logs or fallen leaves.

They may even bury themselves in the mud. They become dormant. Cold water holds more oxygen than warm water, and the frogs and turtles can breath by absorbing it through their skin.



Insects look for winter shelter in holes in the ground, under the bark of trees, deep inside rotting logs or in any small crack they can find. One of the most interesting places is in a gall. A gall is a swelling on a plant. It is caused by certain insects, fungi or bacteria. They make a chemical that affects the plant's growth in a small area, forming a lump. The gall becomes its maker's home and food source.


Every type of insect has its own life cycle, which is the way it grows and changes. Different insects spend the winter in different stages of their lives. Many insects spend the winter dormant, or in "diapause." Diapause is like hibernation. It is a time when growth and development stop. The insect's heartbeat, breathing and temperature drop. Some insects spend the winter as worm-like larvae. Others spend the winter as pupae. (This is a time when insects change from one form to another.) Other insects die after laying eggs in the fall. The eggs hatch into new insects in the spring and everything begins all over again.


The biggest problem for most animals in the winter is finding enough food. If an animal's main source of food is very scarce in the winter, like insects or green plants, it may solve this problem by hibernating. This deep sleep allows them to conserve energy, and survive the winter with little or no food.

Most hibernators prepare in some way for the winter. Some store food in their burrows or dens, to eat when they awake for short periods. Many eat extra food in the fall while it is plentiful. It is stored as body fat to be used later for energy. Hibernators have two kinds of fat: regular white fat and a special brown fat. The brown fat forms patches near the animal's brain, heart and lungs. It sends a quick burst of energy to warm these organs first when it is time to wake up.

True hibernators go into such a deep sleep that they are difficult to wake and may appear dead. Their body temperature drops and breathing and heart beat slow down significantly. For example, a hibernating woodchuck's heart rate slows from 80 to 4 beats per minute, and its temperature drops from 98 F to as low as 38 F. If its temperature falls too low, it will awaken slightly and shiver to warm up a bit. If an animal lives in an area where the winter is mild, it may hibernate only briefly, or not at all. However, even when the weather is severe, hibernators may wake up for short periods every few weeks to use their "toilet rooms" and eat if food is available. Other true hibernators include the jumping mouse, little brown bat, the eastern chipmunk, and some species of ground squirrels. There is even a bird that appears to be a true hibernator. Called the gray and white poorwill, it is related to the whippoorwill and lives in the mountains of Colorado.

Other hibernating animals do not experience major changes in temperature, heart rate and breathing. Animals such as skunks, raccoons and some chipmunks are the light sleepers, easily awakened. They may sleep during the most severe weather and wake to roam and eat during milder weather.

The largest hibernators are the bears. Although a grizzly or black bear's heart rate may drop from a normal of 40-50 beats per minute down to 8-12, its temperature drops only slightly, allowing it to wake up quickly. These bears are also unique because, unlike other hibernators, they do not eat, drink, or excrete at all while hibernating, which can be as long as six months.

How do animals know it is time to hibernate? This is still a subject of research. Hibernating animals have something in their blood called HIT, or Hibernation Inducement Trigger. Recent research suggests that it is some kind of opiate, chemically related to morphine. As the days get shorter, the temperature changes, and food becomes scarce, HIT triggers hibernation. How and why it happens are still a mystery.

There are other animals that hibernate, or become dormant, daily. Many tiny warm-blooded animals have huge energy requirements. It is difficult for some of them to consume enough food to maintain themselves. To conserve energy, animals like hummingbirds and little brown bats become dormant for part of each day.

Just as there are places where food and water are scarce in the winter, there are other places where these resources are scarce in the summer. To survive, some animals aestivate ('es-ti-vat), which is comparable to hibernate. While the northern ground squirrels spend the summer eating and preparing for winter hibernation, ground squirrels living in the southwest desert may avoid the extreme heat by aestivating in their burrows.


NOTE: Please read all instructions completely before starting. Observe all safety precautions. Parents supervise use of knives, scissors and needles.

PROJECT 1 - Feed and observe winter birds and animals

What you need:

Some or all of the following: popcorn, peanuts in shells, apples, cranberries, pears, oranges, kiwi, peanut butter, suet (from butcher)

String, needle and strong thread, scissors, knife

Pine cone (to use with peanut butter), onion bag (to use with suet)

What to do:

String the popcorn and cranberries on a long, doubled piece of thread. String the whole peanuts on another thread.

Slice the fruit crosswise, about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Poke a hole about 2/3 of the way across each slice, thread a 12 inch piece of string through it and tie the ends together.

Put peanut butter or suet into the holes in a pine cone. Tie a string to it.

Cut suet into large pieces and put it into an onion bag.

Hang the food from trees and bushes in sheltered areas, where you can see it. Be patient. It takes time for birds and animals to find the food. Try different locations.

Note: If you choose to begin feeding the birds regularly, try to do it throughout the winter. They start to depend on you and may have trouble finding other sources of food later in the winter.

PROJECT 2 - Feed and observe winter birds

What you need:

An empty plastic milk or water bottle, or a milk carton

Scissors, string, bird seed

What to do:

Wash the bottle or carton and rinse it well. Cut several small (2-3") holes in the sides, about 2" from the bottom. Cut or poke two small holes near the top and thread a long piece of string through them.

Fill the bird feeder with seeds and hang from a tree or shrub. Scattering some seeds on the ground can help the birds find the feeder. Watch the birds. Be patient. Try different types of seeds and different locations. Record your observations.

PROJECT 3 - Discover how insects and spiders survive the winter

You Need:

Warm clothes and a nice day

flashlight, magnifying glass (helpful but not necessary)

large glass jar or milk carton, potting soil, cheesecloth or old nylon stocking

rubber band, knife or pruning shears.

What to do:

Go outside. Look into crevices in bark, in and under dead logs, piles of leaves, clumps of grass, shingles, around windows, in cracks between bricks, in attics, basements, garages, and any place that provides shelter. Use your flashlight and a stick for probing. Can you find active and hibernating adult insects, eggs, and cocoons? Try to leave things as you found them.

Try to find a gall on a tree or shrub. Collect several different types. While still outside, cut them in half and observe what is inside.

You can keep galls to see what emerges in the Spring. Cut a 4-6" section of a twig with a gall. Put a layer of potting soil into a jar, or a milk carton with holes cut in two sides. Put one end of the twigs into the dirt. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or stocking secured by a rubber band, or slide the milk carton into a stocking and tie the ends. Moisten the dirt occasionally. Keep the galls outdoors, out of direct sunlight.

PROJECT 4 - Study animal tracks

What you need:

Animal tracks in snow or mud

animal footprints shown above.

What you do:
(1) Study tracks in the snow or mud and try to match them to the drawings. (Sizes listed are approximate.) What animals were there? Are the tracks closely spaced or far apart? Were the animals walking or running? How many different animal tracks can you find? Keep a record over time.



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