Wildlife Hunger Games

thomas barnes

I’m Tom, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new communications intern. If I’m not out fetching coffee, I’ll be sharing important or entertaining conservation stories here every Friday. Credit: USFWS

Whether you’re in a post-Thanksgiving turkey coma or eating popcorn at the premiere of “Catching Fire,” food is on everyone’s mind, wildlife included. And for good reason — animals across the Northeast are preparing to sustain themselves during the coming winter months.

Temperatures are dropping and food is getting scarce. Of course, wildlife have adapted in numerous ways to deal with long winters.

Have you ever wished you could sleep the winter away? I certainly have. Many animals, like the American black bear (Ursus americanus), spend the winter hibernating. We actually call their winter denning “dormancy,” since bears aren’t true hibernators, and some might not den if food is available. After bulking up during the fall, putting on up to anywhere around 15 pounds a week, a black bear can doze for up to 100 days at a stretch by regulating its metabolism. Its body temperature drops by around 12 degrees, and by midwinter, its heart rate can drop as low as only eight beats per minute.


The American black bear spends autumn bulking up for its winter dormancy.
Same with me. Credit: USFWS.


Hibernating bats, like the northern long-eared bat, are prone to White Nose syndrome here in the northeast. Credit: USFWS.

Black bears aren’t the only ones holing up for winter. The northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) typically increases its body weight by 35 percent or more before retreating to a hibernaculum. Throughout winter, bats periodically rouse anywhere from a few days to weeks to move between hibernacula, before their heart rate and body temperature is again dramatically lowered to conserve energy. Sadly, a disease caused by a cold-loving fungus has swept through these hibernation sites, causing populations of the bats to plummet, dropping 99 percent at some sites across the Northeast.

Instead of taking shelter during the winter, the rufa red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) takes wing — sometimes flying up to 9,300 miles to reach its wintering grounds in Chile and Argentina. Researchers nicknamed one particular red knot “Moonbird,” after they found it had flown 242,350 miles in 13 years, more than the average distance from the earth to the moon. That’s more than my car could drive, certainly. To make this intercontinental migration twice a year, these shorebirds time their stopovers with the spawning season of clams and crabs along the way, sometimes flying 1,500 miles at a stretch.


Red Knots sometimes winter as far away as South America! Credit: USFWS.

The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) stays active during the winter, foraging for food around its thicket habitats. In fact, snow cover allows the cottontail to reach higher foods than in the fall or summer. Shoots, seedlings, bark and twigs of young trees like birch and aspen are all on the menu. Compared to their summer ranges, these rabbits have to travel much more widely to find food.


Can you spot the New England cottontail? It depends on its thicket and young forest to escape both the eyes of predators and people that read blogs. Photo via Flickr.

Check out what these other northeast animals do in the winter!

How will you be spending this winter? Hibernating like the northern long-eared bat, or flying south like the rufa red knot? For me, this day after Thanksgiving, I may just stick to the theater.

Tom can be reached at thomas_c_barnes@fws.gov.

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