Curious Nature: How local wildlife survive the winter (column)
Winter is in full swing here in the Eagle Valley. As the community prepares for the peak of ski season, animals are preparing as well. Although some of our wildlife brethren such as the elk, bats and birds migrate; others have quite clever ways of dealing with winter conditions.
When enjoying all the recreation this area has to offer, we keep warm by bundling up in our coats, hats and mittens. What about our wildlife neighbors that take the winter head on like so many of us? A number of the local wildlife species transition from their thin layer of summer fur and grow more thick warm coats better suited for cold weather.
One such iconic Colorado animal is the mountain goat. These large animals remain a bright white color year-round but develop a more dense winter coat that has two layers. First, there is a thick, inner, wool-like coat, which keeps the goat’s body remarkably insulated. The second layer is an outer layer made of guard hairs. These specially adapted hairs protect the goat from the intense wind and extremely low temperatures by trapping and holding warm air escaping from the body and by blocking against the outside cold air of the high alpine environment in which they live (11,500 feet and higher).
Changes are necessary
Other animals change their outer appearance, not only for warmth, but also for camouflage. If you have a keen enough eye and are lucky, you can pick out a well camouflaged ptarmigan, snowshoe hare or a weasel/ermine in the snow. All three of these animals transition from brown fur or feathers to a white winter color. As a result, the weasel maintains its status as an effective predator while staying hidden from its own predators such as the fox or bobcat while the snowshoe hare and ptarmigan become extraordinarily well hidden within the wintery white environment.
Animals have their own way of preparing for the challenging winter weather Animals are well aware that colder temperatures mean less available food. Beavers, for example, gather large stores of food in the form of tree limbs. Once the water surrounding their lodges freezes over, beavers cannot exit until the ice thaws. They are confined to their lodges and the cold water below the ice, so their stockpiling of tree limbs under the ice is essential for their winter survival. In addition to beavers, pikas and pine squirrels use this strategy of caching stocks of food during the warmer months to feed on during the less abundant winters.
Behavioral changes are necessary for some animals to survive the winter as well. One of these changes is a change in diet. The red fox, for example, eats berries, grasses and insects during the summer, but once winter arrives, it relies much more heavily on rodents and small mammals for food. The red fox uses its remarkable hearing to zero in on rodents scurrying under the snow. Once the fox determines where a potential meal is under the snow, it bounds, silently leaping into the air and pouncing on the unsuspecting prey.
Keep your eyes peeled this winter and you may see some of these animals out flaunting their winter adaptations as the snow flies.
Jamie Jubeck is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. While not at work, he enjoys hiking and snowboarding at any opportunity.
Paul Cuthbertson, a lifelong local of Eagle and Summit counties, died while skiing up to the Polar Star Inn to meet some friends for a celebration of his 21st birthday on Friday night.