Preparing for Winter


(This 1025th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 14, 2010.)


At this time of year with winter approaching, I think often about how fortunate we are. We can retreat to our heated homes, venturing out into the cold only briefly and even then spending most of our time in cars that offer further protection.


Even in warmer weather our excursions into the wild are not the challenges that animals as well as our distant ancestors faced. Some visitors to "the wilderness" simply take with them substitute homes: giant "camping" trailers with completely outfitted kitchens, showers and TV. The rest of us who hike and boat take with us tents and sleeping bags to keep ourselves as comfortable as possible while "experiencing" the out-of-doors.


Animals don't have those comforts and each year they must accommodate to the on-coming winter or die.


And in many cases, death is the operative response. The only remaining bumblebees, for example, are a few queens, already inseminated and carrying the future of their species in the state of diapause through the winter in some underground retreat.


Male honeybees don't have it any better. While hiking one late November along the Erie Canal, I came across a beehive with the snow around it sprinkled with dead bees. I later learned from an apiarist that those were drones, forced out by the worker bees. I could imagine those women saying, "Okay, you bozos, you've lazed around all summer doing little but mating with the queen. Now off with you and don't bother to write."


Other insects have it still worse. For many varieties all of the mature insects die, leaving only the eggs to carry on. And many of those eggs are attached to tree bark where they will be sought out and eaten by the chickadees and nuthatches that spend all their waking moments combing for just that kind of protein.


Of course, most birds have it best. They can join our neighbors in the sunny South. And unlike those neighbors who spend only a few days or weeks on Gulf beaches, many birds are gone for six or seven months. Yellow warblers are among the longest absentees. They depart in late August or early September and don't appear again until late April or early May, almost eight months later.


In fact some birds like bobolinks go so far south that they spend another summer well down in South America.


What is more amazing is the fact that so many birds do remain and make it though our often harsh winters. Some of those that do stay have to change their eating habits. The few robins that overwinter with us, for example, no longer have access to earthworms so they forage fruit trees for berries.


One of the bird species that reminds us that winters are tough on birds is the Carolina wren, a recent immigrant to this region from the south. The local population of this species declines significantly after harsh winters, then slowly recovers over succeeding years.


Birds are not the only migrants, however. Several bats and butterflies do so. While the monarch butterfly is the distance champion, others like the painted lady also retreat to warmer climes.  Although, like most bat species, they hibernate in winter, red and hoary bats travel south before doing so.


Animals have two responses to the scarcity of food in winter. The first is to store nuts and seeds. Gray squirrels bury individual nuts, but red and flying squirrels and chipmunks organize large caches, too often in the attics of the homes we build in wooded areas.


The animals' other response is to store fat in their bodies by overeating through the fall months when vegetation has matured and food is readily available. By spring most of that fat will have been used up through those months when the animals' diet is sharply reduced.


A supplement to this storage of food is the response of moose to declining temperatures. They lower their own body thermostat in order to reduce the amount of food they need to digest. While moose remain active through the winter, the seven sleepers also respond by increasing levels of torpor and hibernation. They are the raccoon, skunk, chipmunk, bear, little brown bat, jumping mouse and woodchuck.-- Gerry Rising