Animals in Winter

Use the four S's (discussed on ESP's Animal Detecting page) to find out what animals live and travel in your neighborhood and near your school. If you ask how animals spend the winter, most people will think of hibernation. But there are other ways animals survive the coldest months. Let's look at some of these ways and see what we can find out.


Some animals really do hibernate in winter. In New York State, black bearswoodchucks (sometimes called groundhogs), jumping mice (more here), and some bats such as the little brown bat are mammals that hibernate. Many other animals also hibernate. These include turtles, frogs, salamanders and snakes. Some fish even hibernate. The carp covers itself with mud and sleeps in the bottom of the pond. Many insects hibernate.

Some insects, like the woolly bear caterpillar, hibernate as larvae. Others, like the cecropia moth, hibernate as pupae. Still others, like the mourning cloak butterfly, hibernate as adults. Look among the red berries of a staghorn sumac. Can you find hibernating insects, spiders and eggs?

Some animals only nap in winter, waking up to eat and even go out if the weather is mild. These include chipmunks, skunks,and squirrels. These nappers sometimes have food stored so that they can get it easily when they wake up.

Some animals, like raccoons, are active most of the time but den up and sleep if the weather is bad.


Some animals head for a better climate during the winter. In the northeastern United States this usually means going south, but in the western mountains, many animals just go down the mountain to where there is less snow and cold. Migration takes an animal to where the weather will be mild enough to make it easier to find food.

Many birds migrate, but not all. Going south means different things to different birds. Did you know that there are robins that come to New York State for the winter? Our nesting robins go further south, but robins from some parts of Canada come to New York and stay. You will not see them eating worms on lawns. Instead, you will find them out in parks and brushy fields where they can find berries to eat. Can you find any robins this winter?

Some insects even migrate. Many people know that monarch butterflies migrate. In the fall you can also see some kinds of dragonflies migrating along the mountain ridges of southeastern New York.


Some animals stay active in winter but are adapted to live in cold and snow. The white-tailed deer grows a winter coat with longer hair. This long hair is hollow inside. The hollow hair is good insulation against the cold. The deer's body heat warms both the air inside the hair and the air beneath the hair. This gives the deer a warm layer of air wrapped around it to protect it from the cold.

The ermine, a kind of weasel, changes color in winter. It turns white. This is good camouflage for traveling and hunting in snow.

The ruffed grouse grows a fringe along the edge of its toes. This acts like a snowshoe to make it easier to walk on top of deep snow. Grouse have a behavior adaptation too. On cold nights, they will fly into a deep snow drift. The snow drift acts like a blanket to protect the grouse from the even colder night air.

Birds have other cold weather adaptations. They will fluff their feathers up to make a thicker insulation layer when the weather is cold. They eat more food when the weather is cold to burn in their bodies to make warmth. When it is cold out birds try to stay out of the wind because wind can quickly carry their body heat away. Watch chickadees and other birds on a cold day. How many of these adaptations can you see?

Meadow voles are small mouse-like animals which live in fields and meadows. They make little haystack nests to keep them warm during the winter. They create tunnel systems among the grasses under the snow. This hides them from hawks and other predators.

What You Can Do

Don't hibernate this winter. Go on some walks outdoors and look for animals, their tracks and clues of what they have been eating. Try to figure out how they are surviving the winter climate. Visit our Animal Detecting page for tips on what to look for.

Read about animal adaptations. Young readers should look at Animals in Winter, by Henrietta Bancroft and Richard G. Van Gelder, illustrated by Gaetano di Palma. Another good book, for grades 2-5, is Where Do They Go? Insects in Winter by Millicent Selsam. A very good book for older readers is The Field Book of Animals in Winter by Ann Haven Morgan. Others include A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes and Discover Nature In Winter by Elizabeth P. Lawlor. Of course a Web search for animals in winter will also find information.
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