Sows give birth in their dens and nurse their cubs all winter, emerging in March or April, with the little ones in tow. A bear den may be in a rock crevice, the root wad of a fallen tree, or inside a standing hollow tree.
Woodchucks simply go underground and sleep it off, spending the winter in hibernation. In October they go underground for the season, to a dead-end nest chamber sealed off with dirt, to prevent rabbits and other wildlife from disturbing their slumber.
The woodchuck’s body temperature drops, and its heart rate slows to as few as four beats per minute. They don’t emerge until the first warm days of February.
Other species of Kentucky wildlife hunker down.
Pond turtles such as the common map turtle, or red-eared slider, sit on the bottom of a pond, or on the bottom of the river in a backwater area, breathing dissolved oxygen through their skin. On sunny days in February, they might crawl up on a log to get some warmth.
The rat snake spends the winter in a small mammal burrow, below the frost line. Imagine being a chipmunk and having to share your home with a big snake four months out of the year.
Toads burrow down in leaf litter and loose topsoil. Tree frogs might spend the winter in a rotten log or in a hole in a tree. The tiny cricket frog spends the summer in ponds and wet areas at lower elevations, then moves to upland woods for the winter.
Box turtles dig down in the ground as cold weather approaches. The colder it gets, they deeper they dig.
For game animals such as rabbits, quail, squirrels, deer and wild turkey, the importance of quality habitat and adequate food, is a matter of life and death.
White-tailed deer and wild turkeys try to conserve body heat when it’s cold, feeding on high calorie foods, moving as little as possible, and expending energy only during the warmest parts of the day. Cedar thickets, interspersed with stands of hardwoods and fields of brush, are necessary to survival.
Rabbits, and especially quail, need thick cover to survive snow and cold winds. Rabbits can go underground to escape the harshest conditions, but quail need thick grasslands for shelter.
Squirrels need den trees, large trees with crevices and holes, to escape the cold. They stash and bury mast (nuts) throughout the fall, to eat in winter. If it’s a poor mast crop and they don’t have enough food to last throughout the winter, they may die of starvation.
We spend the cold weather months in the comfort of our heated homes, for wildlife cold weather is stressful and often life threatening.
Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.