Winter is a survival test for our wild friends
Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton
Snow, snow, and… more snow! Long stretches of intense cold! Sounds like a good old-fashioned Canadian winter, just as the Farmer’s Almanac predicted. However, it can be hard on people and animals alike.
In mid January, during one of the cold snaps, I was outside shoveling snow – no surprise there. I kept hearing a pathetic “meowing” sound and finally located a small cat crouched beneath the front porch. In the twilight I must have looked like a shadowy figure because when I reached out to pet it, ‘Kitty’ took off and disappeared into the dusk.
I surmised that it was likely a barn cat and hoped it would go back to where it belonged. That night the thermometer plunged to a bone-chilling -20 degrees Celsius. The next morning, as I walked past the porch with Fergus the Lab, I was disappointed to hear the soft meowing once again. I finished up the short jaunt with the dog and deposited him into the house (he doesn’t get along with cats very well). I went to the fridge and found a piece of turkey. Back outside, I carefully approached the cat, who I could now see had tiger-like markings and was a little on the small side, yet fully grown. I extended my meat offering carefully, and the cold kitty gingerly bit into it. That was when I grabbed him (her?) by the scruff of the neck and clutched him to my chest. He snuggled in and kept munching the turkey as I walked him two doors north to the neighbour’s horse barn. I lifted the latch and entered the comfortable space where plenty of felines were gathered, well fed and watered. The horses provided plenty of warmth. What a relief! Now I could proceed to work with a clear conscience. Thankfully, I have not seen Kitty since. It is amazing how tough animals can be; however, I doubt this cat would have survived much more of the biting cold.
There are two main ways wild critters adapt in winter. One category is the ‘nappers and snackers’. These are animals that are not true hibernators: squirrels, chipmunks, bears, skunks, beavers and badgers. They will sleep much of the time, but get up and forage for food when the weather is good. Raccoons, skunks, bears, and badgers will actually enter a state of torpor during intense cold and live off their own fat for a while.
The true hibernators appear to be dead because the heart rate is so slow and body temperature drops dramatically. They must eat a lot of food in the fall before going to sleep. True hibernators include: bats, groundhogs, ground squirrel, frogs, snakes, etc.
The white-tailed deer have had it rough this winter. Deep snow makes it difficult to negotiate movement and the long cold periods mean more energy is required. The deer continue to forage on any plants, twigs, and buds they can get at, including cedar trees and the bark of many other types of trees. In spite of the deep snow, any of the deer Fergus and I have spotted in the back field have appeared to be relatively healthy.
So… was Wiarton Willie correct in his prediction of six more weeks of winter when he was awakened from his winter sleep on February 2? The deer certainly hope not!