Snowy Owl buffetting wind Photo Credit: Dick Walker

by Carole Jorgenson, Jill Fanning, Denny Olson

As we stay in our warm homes at night, we might wonder what the wildlife is doing out there in the forest. Animals have evolved for billions of years to live and reproduce in seasonal and diurnal changes. Winter is the time to rest. To recuperate. To sleep. To Dream. And, for some, to die.

Some birds and small mammals will clump together for warmth, often in cavities, brush piles, cave or structures. They fluff their feathers or their fur to insulate them from the cold. Animals such as beavers, otters, min and waterfowl coat their fur or feathers with oil to help insulate from cold and moisture. Muskrats preheat themselves by dancing before going swimming under the ice.

Some animals gain fat through the summer and fall and hibernate through the cold of winter. Bears are not true hibernators, but rather maintain their body temperature, stop eating, drinking and defecating, and spend winters in a warm den. Pregnant female bears give birth to tiny cubs while they are in a torpor state. Birds that don’t migrate must feed enough throughout the day to keep them warm and alive through the night. Mountain chickadees can survive to 50 below by sitting and shivering all night.

Predators seek out the weak and unprepared animals to prey on for survival or find carrion to help them survive. Ruffed grouse burrow in the snow and can keep their snow cave above 20 degrees, no matter what the outside temperature. Flying squirrels sleep communally up to twenty in single gender groups. Voles travel and reproduce under the bottom layer of snow. Painted turtles buried in streamside mud stretch out their legs to absorb more oxygen through their skin. Some insects can burrow deep in the ground or under bark and slow down their metabolism to allow them to freeze without dying. Wood frogs increase their blood glucose up to 100 times normal to keep them alive at temperatures as low as 15 degrees. Their bodies freeze into little “frogsickles” without causing death.

Darkness brings rest and recuperation. It is essential for the brain to have a quiet period of sleep to process activities from the day. For nocturnal birds and malls, the dark is the time they have an advantage to feed when competition is least and prey is more vulnerable.

An important concern is the recent increase of artificial light. The response of animals and birds to light is deeply embedded in their DNA. Extended light impacts the feeding, breeding and migration patterns of may types of wildlife. Artificial light artificially attracts birds and insects, causing abnormally high concentrations of animals around lit buildings. Some birds and insects have flown in circles around lights until they die of exhaustion. The full impact of artificial light is just being investigated, but light pollution definitely is causing change.

Tonight, embrace the dark. Feel the cold. Look at the starts. Rekindle your thoughts. Shut off your exterior lights. Turn down your heat. Sleep longer. Shamanic culture believes the hibernating spirt bear is guarding our dreams. Tonight, let’s wish for sweet dreams.