Dead of Winter:  How Do Those Critters Make it to Spring?

By:  Stephen Wendt

Old Man Winter

I always thought the expression “in the dead of the winter” was odd.  Yes, it refers to the middle winter, when it is darkest and coldest, but Nature is hardly dead during winter. To numerous Native American tribes, winter is the time for traditional storytelling passed down through the generations, while other cultures humanized the season to the lively ‘Old Man Winter’. 

For us, winter is a time of change, a time to bring out our cold-weather clothes, raise indoor thermostats, winterize our vehicles, and indulge on hot chocolate and heavier, fat-induced meals and baked goods that just don’t hold their appeal on the Fourth of July.  Similarly, Nature adapts not just to survive but in some cases thrive year after year in frigid, sometimes foreboding conditions.

But how do all the critters survive the prolonged cold and diminished food sources?  Think adaptation, migration, avoidance, hibernation, and tolerance

Insects and other species that only live one year survive by propagating larval descendants able to survive the cold.  Migratory birds fly south to warmer climes, while amphibians and reptiles close up shop by burying themselves in sediments, soils, or leaf little.  Yet others uniquely, dramatically lower their metabolisms, body temperatures, and heart rates during months of “winter lethargy” (bears, some bats), or full-fledged hibernation (ground squirrels).

Mammals fatten up the bodily energy reserves while others stockpile food stores, improve their shelters, and grow thicker fur coats, including some which turn camouflage snow white.  Birds trap little pockets of air within their puffed up feathers. Mammals insulate with added layers of fine underfur beneath coarse, weatherproof outer fur which can be raised to create warm insulated air pockets. The fur in a whitetail deer’s winter coat is hollow, allowing further retention of body heat like multi-paned windows keeping warmth in/ cold out.  Evolution has also prepared animals over time to weather winter with appropriate body sizes, limb lengths, and behavioral changes

But how does Nature know when to adapt for winter?  Given the power of evolution to slowly, surely foster change in favor of survival of the fittest, Nature requires environmental cues that reliably trigger these adaptations.  Otherwise, unseasonable cold snaps, changes in seasonal winds or barometric pressures could wrongly signal and endanger a snowshoe rabbit to start growing white hair in the wrong season. That’s why most adaptations to winter rely on the slow, predictable shortening seasonal daylight cycles tied to Earth’s and sun’s perpetual solar dance. 

Michigan State University states shorter daylight hours help trigger responses of the “master gland” of the body, the hypothalamus in the brain, to change behavior or appearance to prepare for oncoming cold. While very small, the hypothalamus plays a crucial relevant role in many important body functions (e.g., controlling appetite, body temperature, physiological cycles, etc.). 

So the next time Old Man Winter gets a hold of you in the dead of winter, just remember that Mother Nature is the force that truly rules.

Hail & Farewell to Winter

Winter is a season of recovery and preparation.   Paul Theroux

You can’t get too much winter in the winter. Robert Frost

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it; the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. Andrew Wyeth

Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.   Deborah Kerr

O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?   Percy Bysshe Shelley

Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.   John Boswell

Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.  William Shakespeare

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.     T.S. Eliot   

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.  Albert Camus

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.
Edith Sitwell

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.   Anne Bradstreet

For More Nature Stories

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Old Man Winter is personification of winter.  The name is a colloquialism for the winter season derived from ancient Greek Mythology and Old world pagan beliefs evolving into modern characters in both literature and popular culture. Wikipedia 

Chipmunks and squirrels gather (hoards) acorns for winter which supply the extra fat needed they require to produce fat. thus body heat.  Chipmunks and squirrels gather (hoards) acorns for winter which supply the extra fat needed they require to produce fat. thus body heat. 

 	Birds trap insulating air in feathers too retain body hea
Birds trap insulating air in feathers to retain body heat.

Blue Jay in Winter

Deer adapt for winter by fattening up on acorns & growing a thick fur coat

Deer adapt for winter by fattening up on acorns & growing a thick fur coat.

White Tail Deer in Winter phto by SL Wendt

Humans have associated the winter season with deities since the ancient Greece god of winter Boreas, the Norse mythology god of winter Ullr and continuing on in other cultures including Celtic Mythology with the goddess Cailleach and goddess Beira. 

Over time, the old gods of winter changed to new humanizations of the seasons, including Old Man Winter.

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