Ohio Woodchuck (Groundhog)
As winter begins drifting into the Ohio Valley, people are pulling on parkas, adding extra blankets to their beds and building cozy fires to keep away the cold. But what about wildlife? How do they survive the cold months of winter?
Evolution has prepared wildlife to cope with the climatic changes they face in their neck of the woods. Some animals hibernate and some migrate, while others stay put, growing thick coats and consuming extra food to keep them warm.
Hibernation is one of the most intriguing methods animals use to survive cold weather. When an animal hibernates, its heart rate, body temperature and other life processes slow down, putting them into a kind of a deep sleep.
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are one of Ohios true hibernators, said Donna Daniel, a wildlife biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Groundhogs pretty much hibernate the entire winter, Daniel said. They wont reemerge until the first few weeks of February, when some signs of spring begin to show.
During a groundhogs hibernation which lasts an average of five months its body temperature lowers by almost half and its heart slows down from 160 to four beats per minute.
When outside temperatures drop dangerously low, skunks, raccoons, chipmunks and opossums are known to go into a temporary hibernation. During those frigid periods, they seek shelter in trees, logs, beneath rocks or underground where they hole up and sleep for about five days until the weather breaks.
Many migrating birds fly thousands of miles away from Ohio, seeking warmer climates and nutrient-rich habitats. Other flying creatures such as the Indiana and little brown bat not only migrate they hibernate! Roosting inside dark, comfy caves, these bats often ride out winter just south of the Ohio border.
Frogs, snakes, turtles and most other cold-blooded animals crawl into holes or burrows where they remain inactive all winter. Some snakes gather family-style in the same den and weave together in a "ball" to help insulate themselves.
Whether hibernating or staying active, body fat is an important factor in an animals winter survival. In the fall, birds and mammals eat extra food so that when supplies are scarce, their bodies can draw energy from fat reserves.
For non-migratory birds such as cardinals and some robins, packing on a few extra ounces of fat is not enough. With their warm season diet of insects, worms and other invertebrates no longer available, they switch to a winter diet of seeds and fruit, consuming the likes of crabapples, wild berries and weed seeds.
Watching wildlife scurrying along the ice and snow can tug at the human heart strings. Many people think feeding the animals is humane, but wildlife experts recommend against this practice.
With the exception of feeding songbirds, putting out food for wildlife can hurt more than help, Daniel said.
She explained that the unnatural gathering of many species to one food source can promote the spread of disease. Feeding bread to ducks and geese is terrible for their digestion and waterfowl is especially vulnerable to outbreaks of botulism when artificially fed. And, just as its bad for humans, filling up on items lacking nutritional value is harmful to an animals health.
Come spring time, dont expect the deer you fed all winter to find greener pastures. By then, they will have become accustomed to the free meal and think its perfectly acceptable munching on your garden of delicate spring flowers and tender vegetables.
Beware of feeding Canada geese in your yard or local park. They might decide to take up permanent residence, making a mess of the grass next summer.
Daniel said if you really want to help the animals, consider making your yard wildlife friendly with naturally grown food and shelter. She suggests planting trees that yield nuts and berries. Evergreen trees and shrubs such as pines and taxus yews give animals protection from wind and rain.
If you own a larger parcel of land in the country, brush piles and thick patches of briers provide excellent winter cover for bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits and other small animals. Planting food patches of corn, sorghum and millet give numerous wild animals a good source of energy to maintain their body heat in cold weather conditions.
So, the next time you see Ohios wildlife out in the cold of winter, dont worry, theyll be o.k. Instead, be thankful evolution put humans on a different course from the groundhog!