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Winter can be the harshest of seasons, but wild animals adapt and even thrive

squirrel in winter
Photo from Storyblocks

Virginians are lucky to enjoy four distinct seasons each year, each one reflected in the changing natural scenery. While the winters are generally mild, temperatures do dip below freezing and bring the occasional snowfall. During these months, the wildlife have many ways to adapt. 

The red fox grows a thicker coat and develops an increased layer of body fat to stay warm. The woodchuck (or groundhog) enters a state of torpor, in which basic bodily functions like heart rate and breathing are slowed down to conserve energy, so they can hunker down for the winter. Reptiles and amphibians enter a similar state called brumation.

Birds might fly south to avoid the cold, or stay put no matter the season. The golden-winged warbler, which spends most of its life in the mountainous western part of Virginia, heads for the warmth of South America when colder temperatures  set in. But the northern cardinal stays put, brightening the winter landscape until spring returns. The golden eagle comes in from as far as Canada from December to March, finding that Virginia is plenty warm compared to their winters back home.

The changing climate complicates things for some Virginia wildlife. Research shows that the last freeze of each year is happening earlier every spring, and the first frost is coming later every autumn. The result is a warmer winter, upsetting the balance for much of the natural world. If spring flowers are blooming before their time, while pollinators are still emerging from a winter sleep, both miss out on their mutual benefits. And animals like the brook trout, which thrives in cold water, might find their very existence threatened by steadily rising temperatures.

If their food sources become scarce in winter, wild animals might come closer to homes and neighborhoods as the temperatures dip. Adaptive behaviors like this sometimes catch the eye of their human neighbors, who might call authorities with concerns about the animal’s wellbeing.

In most cases, there is no cause for alarm and the animal is best left to fend for itself. But in cases when  an animal has been injured, the seasonal habits of that species are among the many factors a wildlife rehabilitator must consider when planning the animal’s eventual release from care.

What You Can Do!

  • Don’t disturb the wildlife around you. They might be conserving energy during the winter to stay warm, so if they have to run from humans (or pets) that’s a lot of energy wasted. If you spot an uninjured wild animal outside during the winter, just give it some space. If it does appear to be injured, consult a wildlife rehabilitator for guidance.
  • When feeding birds, make sure you’re providing quality nutrition. Leftovers like cracker crumbs and stale bread only provide empty calories, but black oil sunflower seeds and suet can provide much-needed fuel for their day.
  • Keep bird feeders clean. Mold and mildew can thrive even in winter, and decaying food can cause health problems that become more severe when a bird is already trying to cope with low temperatures. Learn more about making your feeder a healthy stop for the birds around you.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint to combat climate change. There are lots of easy little changes you can make to your habits, and each one makes a difference.

Check out The Wildlife Center of Virginia to learn more about the wild animals around you, and how you can help keep them safe.