Winter in the Pacific Northwest can be a bit difficult to deal with at times, as this season brings longer nights, overcast days, and cold, wet weather. Flora and fauna species alike have developed adaptations and survival mechanisms to get through this time of year. Many deciduous trees, for example, shed their leaves every autumn as a way to conserve resources and go dormant during winter. Some animals, like bears, go through their own sort of dormancy and will spend most of this cold, dark season in a sort of sleep state. Being able to spot wildlife in the winter can be incredible but how do our wild animal friends survive the season? There are a few survival mechanisms that animals use to get through some of the coldest months of the year and a few ways humans can safely help.
Torpor and Hibernation
Bears hibernating might be what many think of in relation to animals in the wintertime but these animals (and many others) don’t truly hibernate for the season. Instead, they enter into a state called ‘torpor’, a lighter sleep-state that is triggered by colder temperatures and decreased food availability. Torpor involves lower metabolic rates, decreased breathing, and lower heart rates when the animal is sleeping but unlike hibernation, it is not a voluntary state and lasts for shorter periods of time. Animals that go into torpor are actually active more often than you might think and during these active periods, they maintain a normal body temperature and breathing/heart rate. A better way to describe torpor might be that animals enter into a much deeper sleep at night during the winter to help conserve energy.
National Geographic describes hibernation as an extended form of torpor and a means of energy conservation. It’s something that isn’t explicitly for cold weather and there are a few reasons why an animal might hibernate, including temperature changes (both cold and hot), food shortages, and protection from predators. One of the biggest differences between hibernation and torpor is the timing, as hibernation is much longer than torpor. Hibernation is not continuous but can last 1-3 weeks while torpor is much shorter.
For herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), winter is the time of year they go through something called brumation. This dormant period is similar to hibernation and torpor for mammals and is when a herptile’s body shuts down (to a certain point) to conserve energy. Even though they might not need to, pet reptiles and amphibians (like bearded dragons, certain tortoises and turtles, and snakes) might go through some sort of brumation, meaning pet owners should research the animals they have and how to best care for them.
There are plenty of situations where intervention seems absolutely necessary to help an animal out but without the proper training, interacting with and caring for an animal can spell disaster or more harm. There are times where some sort of help is necessary but those times are rarer than most might think, as there are a surprising amount of situations where intervention is absolutely not needed. There are, for example, several animal species that can survive with a missing or severely injured leg.
While there is a decrease in food availability for animals in the winter, leaving out food for them isn’t a particularly good idea. Each species has its own unique diet and ability to digest certain foods; a deviation from said diet can cause problems like diarrhea, dehydration, gastrointestinal upset, malnutrition, and more. Additionally, wild animals like deer that are inappropriately fed by humans could potentially be habituated to our presence and lose their naturally healthy fear. Habituated wild animals or ones that have strongly imprinted on a human sadly run a much higher risk of being attacked, hit by a car, or another potentially fatal interaction.
Generally, the best way to ensure that wild animals have enough to eat every winter is to promote year-round quality habitat. Healthy, accessible ecosystems can allow for animals to use their natural behaviors and instincts, things that have been developed over millennia, to survive in the ways they know how to. There are wild animals of all kinds that prepare for winter by building up fat reserves so having access to the appropriate food during the summer and autumn can help them survive through the winter.
Hummingbird Bird Feeders
Bird feeders can be an exception to the practice of not feeding wild animals, as they are generally a great way to provide the appropriate food for birds. This is especially true for hummingbirds. While there are a few hummingbird species that are only seasonal visitors to the Pacific Northwest, the Anna’s Hummingbird is a permanent resident of the region. If you want to put up a feeder this time of year, there are some things to keep in mind.
A hummingbird feeder should contain a sugar-water solution that is four parts water to one part sugar, something that stays consistent year-round! Having multiple feeders can decrease fights between hummingbirds, as they can be territorial. Be sure to also keep the feeders clean and sanitary to avoid a fungal build-up that could cause a fungal tongue infection for the hummingbirds. Lastly, keeping the feeders warm (but not hot!) with lights can help prevent the sugar water from freezing.
- Help Protect Wild Birds From Deadly Salmonellosis, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Leave the Leaves!
By now, many folks may have already done yard work to get things ready for winter, including raking up and disposing of the leaves and fallen branches in their yards. But did you know that leaves on the ground are incredibly important? Pollinators like bees, beetles, and moths rely on fallen leaves during the autumn and winter for food and shelter. The Larch Mountain salamander, one of the rarest amphibians in the Pacific Northwest, also benefits from piles of leaves. While they’re not likely to be found in backyards, these salamanders (and others) do prefer habitats with slopes and large amounts of fine litter like decaying leaves, bark, and twigs.
There are plenty of other reasons to simply leave fallen leaves alone! Leaves and other types of yard waste that are thrown away make up more than 13% of the nation’s solid waste and without enough oxygen, yard waste in landfills end up releasing methane and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Decaying leaves are also free mulch and can help build up healthy soil, which can result in healthier plants and ecosystems.
In the end, this season can be a cold, dark time in the Northern Hemisphere and it’s not until the winter solstice that the days slowly start to get longer again. While it may seem like wild animals need our help or some sort of intervention, there’s rarely a situation where an animal needs human meddling. Wild animals have developed survival mechanisms and adaptations to help them get through the winter. Unfortunately, there are animals that will die during the season but such is the circle of life.
If you’d like to give wildlife the best possible chance at survival, there are so many ways you can act. Leave fallen leaves alone during the autumn for the pollinators, certain amphibians, and other animals that rely on the decaying matter. Plant native floral species in your garden or help out at a Parks Department work party to clear out invasive species or other activities in a local park. Advocate for healthy ecosystems with the biodiversity that keep them thriving. Fight against climate change, as the increase in the global temperature is having immensely negative effects on animals all year round.