This is the second of a four part series on our province’s most resilient animals. You can find out more about mammals that are active through the winter here.
You may have assumed that the mammals you don’t see during the winter are hibernating, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, some mammals use an ‘in between’ strategy that involves a lot of deep sleeping with some activity to pass the time in colder weather.
The Winter Sleeper
The skunk is an excellent example of a winter sleeper. Skunks have different burrows for different times of the year, they will not spend the winter in the same place where they raise their young. As winter approaches, skunks will fatten up on a variety of food, such as berries and insects (they are omnivores), then choose a protected burrow for their slumber. Their metabolic rate does not go as low as a true hibernator.
Skunks usually find a place to burrow rather than dig their own, and may share the site with other skunks (even though they are independent the rest of the year). Unfortunately, they sometimes decide to use human structures, such as under a porch, for this purpose! Because they do not go into the deep sleep of a true hibernator, they will arouse from time to time over the winter, especially when temperatures are warm. As omnivores, they may be able to find something to eat. They can arouse much more quickly than a true hibernator, and at the first sign of spring they will be looking for a mate.
Digging in for the Season
Badgers have a similar strategy. As excellent diggers, they frequently make new burrows, so will dig one for their winter sleep. They may arouse and search for food during the winter.
Unlike skunks, badgers mate before hibernation; implantation of the embryo is delayed until later in winter, provided conditions are good. Badgers have their young in early spring, and kits will stay in their natal burrow for a couple of weeks before they begin to venture out.
Living Under the Weather
Have you ever wondered what beavers do in the winter since they are seldom seen at that time of the year? Beavers are active but spend most of their time in the lodge and under the ice. Industrious beavers cut trees and branches and store them in the water for winter meals. Beavers are not fast on land, especially when there is snow on the ground, so having food under the ice means they can avoid predators. Sometimes you can see steam coming out of the top of an occupied lodge!
All of these animals have adapted to the weather and, as most of us would like to do, sleep through a large portion while still getting out into the elements when they need to. These mammals are a great example of weathering the winter in a style that is all their own.