Deer and squirrels go about the business of survival this time of year

New Haven Register


“Where is Bambi?” a reader named Bob asked in an email recently. He had a good question.

Where is everybody? The midwinter world looks empty.

We have weeks and weeks ahead of cold, snow-bound fields, ragged weed heads and little action from Mother Nature. Now and then, a hawk ghosts through, yearning for a morsel of mouse to feed his aching hunger. Everything else is quiet. Still.

Three months from now, the field will be a riot of activity: insects and birds, fluffy little babies, flitting butterflies, rainbow-hued flowers, noise and action, color and drama. For now, it is an empty study in black and white, shadows on snow. The whisper of wind in the weed stalks. Where’d everybody go?

Many birds fled southward. Some insects simply died, leaving only the eggs of future generations. Mice tunnel safely under the snow, hidden in a softly lit world.

Busy little chipmunks are slumbering deep, deep in their burrows. They sleep on beds of nuts and seeds stored over the summer and fall. Every so often, they awaken, nibble at their cushion, and go back to sleep. In a prolonged thaw, they may visit the world upstairs, but their bodies will return to a state of torpor if cold snaps in on us again. This waking/eating/sleeping cycle means they are not truly hibernating.

Nearby woodchucks are actually hibernating, their body temperature, heart, breathing rates and metabolism dropped to near death. They won’t eat, drink, or release wastes until spring. The same is true for the harmless little snakes of Connecticut. Turtles, salamanders and frogs are underground or underwater in a similar suspended animation until spring.

Beetles and bugs are hunkering down in the soil as grubs and larvae. The moles that hunt them are awake and hungry, digging toward their sluggish insect prey. Under the snow, under the ground, meadow mice skitter along mole tunnels searching for roots and bulbs, stems and seeds to gnaw away.

But even the animals we do see occasionally seem to vanish at times. “Where do the deer I often see in the woods here in Hamden go?” asked Bob. By this time in winter, animals like deer have used up their reserves of fat. Keeping a body warm in cold weather consumes a lot of fuel. So does moving about in crisp snow to find more food. The deer’s energy budget is stretched to the breaking point. This is starvation season. A desperate run from curious hikers, a frantic flight from roaming dogs, a minor injury or illness could tip the balance between death and survival.

Wintering deer seek shelter under evergreen trees or within deep forests where snowfall and windchill are less severe. A group of deer often bed down together to wait out the season in a safe spot called a “deer yard.” Most of the deer sleep most of the time to conserve energy. One or two are usually awake, their eyes, ears and sensitive noses alert for danger. When hunger arouses the herd they gnaw on bark or twigs, buds or tussocks of dry, frozen grasses. Then they lie down again, each deer in its favored spot, to chew its cud and doze off.

Meat-eaters lead similarly restricted lives in the winter. They rest. They hunt. They rest again. There isn’t the fuel to do much more.

“Where do the squirrels live during the wintertime?” Bob asked. “I see many of them playing outside all the time. Do they retreat to nests inside trees?”

Squirrels, red, gray and flying, stay active all winter. In the summer, gray squirrels build messy-looking treehouses of twigs and leaves, grasses and strips of bark. These “drays” are too drafty to serve as winder sleeping quarters, so last fall the gray squirrels chose tree hollows.

All the squirrels pack their homes with dead leaves to stabilize and insulate their nest cavities. Then they line them with soft bedding and cuddle in. A dozen or more flying squirrels often bunk together for warmth while the other species prefer to live alone. They are holed up waiting, as we all are, for spring to come.

Little hearts are quickening out there, though. In the depths of winter, the natural world begins to stir toward spring.

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