By Julianne Werts

When we think of winter, we often picture a cold day with snow on the ground. And often in this picture, there aren’t many animals around. As the season gets colder, we may see a few birds flying around or a rabbit hopping through the snow, but generally, the wildlife we see decreases. So where do all the animals go?

There are a number of ways that wildlife will survive the winter. Many people know the term “hibernation,” which is when an animal sleeps through the colder months of the year and wakes up as the season gets warmer again. The most common species associated with hibernation is the bear. However, many other animals go through the same cycle, including bats, prairie dogs, and other rodents.

When animals are getting ready to hibernate, they will eat a lot of extra food in order to gain more weight. The fat that is stored provides the energy they will survive off of during the winter. When they sleep, most of their body functions actually slow down, including their metabolism and oxygen use. This is how they are able to survive for so long without eating. As the season gets warmer and their food supply is available again, they will wake up and start foraging like normal.

Reptiles, like our native box turtles and bull snakes, also go through something similar during the winter. Because they are ectothermic, or require heat from outside sources, their body temperature lowers as it gets colder. When this happens, they will often find a burrow in the ground to go to sleep. Unlike our true hibernating friends, if there is a warm day in the middle of winter, they will wake up and go on about their usual lives, then go back to sleep as it gets cold again. This process is called torpor or brumation.

Of course, there are other animals that will leave the area, or migrate, as the temperature starts to chill. You may have seen large flocks of geese and ducks flying overhead, all going in the same direction. Many birds are not able to handle the cold very well, so they will move south, where it stays warmer throughout our winter months. A lot of songbirds have the same behavior; species like warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds will all move to warmer parts of the world and make their way back in the spring. Many of these smaller birds prefer to travel at night. We can actually help with this migration by simply keeping our lights off during the night, which lessens the chance of birds trying to fly through closed windows because they look like open space.

While our world looks very different in the winter, the wildlife surrounding us doesn’t simply disappear. They may move on to other areas or be sleeping right under our feet. But they always return with the warm weather! And of course, you can visit the Lee Richardson Zoo year-round and see some of your favorite winter-loving animals from all around the world!

Julianne Werts is the education coordinator at Lee Richardson Zoo.