Like a randomroll of the dice, winter is here for western Kansas.
Just the other day, a person from elsewhere asked me when it gets cold here. My response was, “Between three weeks ago and four weeks from now.”
In our region, we know winter will happen, but the question is when. We try to prepare as much as we can. Drain unused waterlines, pull out the heated blankets and parkas. What about the animals of our region? Everyone knows the words hibernation and migration, but many don’t understand how amazing those words are.
Let’s start with hibernation. It means sleep, right? Hibernation does mean to sleep for long periods of time at the word’s basic level. In nature, hibernation is not so basic, and it means different things for different animals.
On the surface, the body seems to just be slowing down but so much more is happening. Animals that hibernate go through a complete shift of the body’s hormones and control centers. Entire metabolic pathways are reformed annually.
It is possible to wake a bear in hibernation, which some argue that bears are actually going into torpor instead. Think of torpor as a lighter form of hibernation that an animal can awaken from, so don’t try and poke a sleeping bear because it may very well wake up.
Now, there are animals that fall into the true hibernator category. Many bat species drop their breaths far deeper than our friend the bear. Breaths of a hibernating bear are just over one breath a minute, while hibernating bats drop their need for a breath to once every hour. Some species take it even further. The wood frog goes so far as to allow ice crystals to form in its blood and stop breathing all winter.
True hibernators are often mistaken for being dead due to the extreme body changes. Amphibians and reptiles in our region tend to hide when hibernating.
This is generally underground, but many frogs will find a nice pond, water trough or bucket of water to hide in. They sink to the bottom of the water where the freeze will miss them and shut down their bodies until the ice above melts and the water heats up to a reasonable temperature.
Migration doesn’t completely alter the metabolic pathways like hibernation, but it is no less amazing.
We take for granted the magnitude of the distance many migrators travel because we have cars and jets. But just imagine traveling to Brazil every year without our cars, planes or trains. Would you make it?
Mississippi kites and other animals do this every year. How do they find their way every year? For most animals, there seems to be a combination of strategies.
The easiest is landmarks. They simply remember what they saw along the journey. Simple enough, but what happens if a flood year changes the course of a river? Many animals will actually use the stars to determine their direction.
What if you are a monarch butterfly, and you weren’t even an egg during the last migration? Many animals have a rudimentary method to sense the earth’s magnetic field to maintain direction. But even with all these phenomenal adaptations to help animals travel immense distances, it is still a hard trip. Many do not make the journey.
Every year, it seems to get tougher for wildlife. On our travels, we enjoy pit stops along the way to refuel. Pit stops for animals are natural habitat areas rather than gas stations.
Habitat loss not only affects the long-term residents of the ecosystem, but also those that pass through. Imagine having your gas light go on and discovering the gas station you always used was shut down. We would panic and have to call AAA in that situation. Wildlife would perish.
We can help wildlife by creating habitat. Try putting out bird feeders or planting native plants in your yards. Something simple can make a giant impact with animals. This year, we noticed a giant explosion of migrators through our area due to the increased rainfall. We can keep that happening by recreating or saving natural habitats.
At Lee Richardson Zoo, our constructed wetlands are frequented by hundreds of our region’s migrators. We are developing a butterfly garden that includes milkweed to help monarch butterflies find nectar along their migratory journey.
Our world is a beautiful place and the key to that beauty is maintaining the diversity of all the living things in our area.
You can find helpful information to adjust your yard by visiting the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org), Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org) or the Kansas Backyard Habitat Improvement Program run by Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (www.ksoutdoors.com). A little bit of research can go a long way to diversifying your backyard visitors year-round.