It is obvious that autumn is fully upon us. The leaves are falling, the days are getting shorter, and we are all digging around in our closets searching for our long-sleeved shirts and heavy coats.
This also means that winter is just around the corner.
There are many preparations that people must make in anticipation of winter. Whether it is checking our houses for drafts, making sure we have enough firewood or stocking up on canned and jarred foods, there is a lot to be done.
Surprisingly, animals do many of the same things people do to prepare for the low temperatures and blowing snow. From storing food to putting on a thicker winter coat, animals have ways to survive the challenges of winter.
Many mammals (animals that have fur or hair on their bodies) will increase the thickness of their coat in preparation for winter.
Our American bison, camels, swift foxes and otters are great examples of this. The extra fur, along with extra body fat they have stored from the summer and fall, will help to insulate them when the temperature starts to drop. In fact, American bison tend to have such thick and shaggy coats that snow will not melt and instead build up on top of the fur, further increasing their insulation.
Sometimes animals do not have a fur coat, or the fur coat is not sufficient enough to survive the cold weather. There still are several options for these animals, including hibernation.
Hibernation is when an animal goes into a very deep, sleep-like state. When you think of hibernating animals, often a picture of a bear comes to mind. However, bears are not true hibernators.
In order for an animal to truly hibernate, several things must occur: the body temperature must fall dramatically (usually to just a few degrees above freezing) and the heart and breathing rate of the animal must decrease greatly. Because of these changes, the hibernating animal often is difficult to wake up. Some examples of true hibernating animals are groundhogs, snakes and frogs.
While bears do indeed sleep for extended periods of time during the winter, they do not experience as dramatic a decrease in body temperature, and they can wake to forage for food if necessary.
Then there are the animals that just skip the bad weather completely and move to a warmer climate for the winter. This process of traveling from one place to temporarily reside in another is called migration.
Migration is most well known with birds in North America, although other animals, such as monarch butterflies, migrate as well. There is a good reason some areas don't see many ducks or geese during winter time. As the temperature drops, the food sources of these birds (aquatic plants and insects) become scarce, so the birds migrate south to warmer climates where there is more food.
Birds tend to take specific routes when migrating, often following geographical land formations such as mountains and rivers. Garden City is in the middle of the Central Flyway of North America. Since the zoo has open waters, many migrating birds will stop at our duck pond for a short break and a meal before continuing on south.
Inevitably, there are going to be those animals that are awake and energetic during the winter time. Squirrels, rabbits, pheasants and deer are a few of the native Kansas animals that you are likely to see romping around in the snow. These animals are able to weather the winter storms much the same way we do: by having a shelter someplace to keep warm, by eating stored food and by huddling together until the storm passes.
So grab a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate, curl up with a loved one for warmth or do like the animals do: Take a long winter nap or a vacation to a warmer climate. However, if you feel a bit daring, put on your heavy coat and brave the cold weather to come visit the zoo, where you will find many of the animals are comfortable and active throughout the winter season.
If some of your favorite animals are not out on exhibit (such as the kangaroos or many of the birds in the aviary), do not worry, you will see them again in the spring when the thermometer starts to climb once more.
Visit our award- winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo.