BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Minnesota’s resident wildlife have uniquely evolved to survive winter
How do they do it? Granted, without remarkable behavioral, physical, and physiological adaptations and functions, no species — humans included — would last long in such wintertime environments across the planet’s northern latitudes.
I awoke one recent morning refreshed after enjoying a restful night of sleep. I bounced out of bed and went to the kitchen like I do every morning and made a pot of coffee.
Not long afterward, I was busy working in my home office with a fresh cup of hot coffee to begin my work day.
And then I glanced down at the temperature displayed on the lower right hand corner of my computer monitor. It read minus 35 degrees.
To verify the unworldly temperature, I also checked my smartphone’s weather app. Scrolling through the different towns I’ve saved confirmed the negative number. Even my cheap little outdoor thermometer hanging outdoors affirmed the tree-popping temp at 31 below the donut.
Temperatures such as these remind me of not only my good fortune for having a warm abode and carefree comfort with no thought of my personal survival but that animals in the great outdoors don’t have it so lucky, especially those year-round resident species that remain active throughout the long and cold winter.
How do they do it? Granted, without remarkable behavioral, physical and physiological adaptations and functions, no species — humans included — would last long in such wintertime environments across the planet’s northern latitudes.
Winter in the Northland always causes some amount of hardship for wildlife. This winter is shaping up to be more difficult than recent past winters given the amount of snow on the ground, the days and nights that the mercury has dipped below zero, and the fact that there is plenty of winter yet to be had. Indeed, the potential for additional snow and bitter cold is more likely than not.
If ever there was a survivor, it’s the ubiquitous white-tailed deer. And yet, despite the species’ amazing adaptability, winters with prolonged deep snow and subzero temperatures combined with a lack of accessible food can put even this resilient species over the edge. Still, it takes a lot to stress a deer to the point of no return.
Deer are well equipped for surviving the harshest extremes that Mother Nature can dish out. Their winter coats comprised of long, hollow hairs trap air that provides them the insulation they need to stay warm. So insulated and protective are their coats that falling snow accumulates on their backs rather than melting because hardly any body heat escapes.
Also, and probably more importantly, a deer’s metabolic rate decreases in the wintertime, thus allowing deer to conserve energy and reduce energetic needs. Put another way, deer don’t need to consume as much food in the winter as they do throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.
This slowing down of internal body functions, a diet of mostly twigs, along with built fat reserves helps most deer make it through. And behaviorally, deer choose habitats that provide thermal protection when available, such as thick coniferous cover where snow doesn’t get as deep and howling bitter cold winds don’t penetrate.
Other wildlife, too, is equally as amazing in their survival instincts and adaptations. The diminutive black-capped and boreal chickadees, survive cold and stormy weather by seeking shelter wherever they can find it, typically natural tree cavities, and often several of them at a time huddling together to stay warm.
Chickadees, and many other species of wild birds, also enter a state of mini-hibernation at nighttime, or torpor as it’s called, where, like the white-tailed deer, metabolic rates decrease slightly thereby preserving valuable energy.
Some wild animals on the other hand truly do hibernate. Ground squirrels such as chipmunks, woodchucks, Franklin’s and Richardson’s ground squirrels, and others, sleep the winter away in deep underground burrows. Some cache food in burrow chambers in case they wake up and need a snack.
Black bears, too, hibernate, though not to the degree that ground squirrels do. Bears rely mostly on huge amounts of fat reserves as they slumber through the winter.
Surviving Old Man Winter is not for the faint of heart. While most wild birds adapt to northern winters by leaving, those wild creatures left behind — from scurrying voles underneath the snow to wolves hunting for game to live another day — Minnesota’s resident wildlife have all evolved unique and various ways to survive as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.