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Got the cold weather blues? Wild animals do too!

November 1, 2018

As the temperatures plummet and the wind grows icy, we sometimes wonder how we’ll ever survive until spring! The winter months pose many challenges not only for companion and farm animals, but for wildlife as well.

Luckily they – just like us – have developed strategies and adaptations to help them make it through the chilly season.

Anna's hummingbird on snowy branch
Photo credit: Mary-Jean Payeur

The Basics #1 – Food: Colder temperatures mean that wild animals expend more energy to keep warm. While many mammals grow thicker coats, and birds fluff their feathers to trap warm air close to their bodies, it is still a challenge to stay cozy at this time of year. They also burn extra calories in cold weather to maintain their body temperature.

So, how do wild animals meet this higher energy demand?

They prepare ahead by packing on extra weight or catching food during the summer and fall. During the winter season, wild animals are also often less active and it is more common to spot wildlife resting during the day – a savvy energy-saving strategy. Finally, they will take advantage of clear days between stormy weather to forage, so you might suddenly see a lot of activity in your backyard or along the trails when nice weather hits.

How to Help: For the most part, wild animals don’t require any extra food from us humans, and often feeding them can do more harm than good. However, if you do have a year-round bird feeder, don’t forget to keep it well stocked as birds come to rely on this food source as part of their winter diet.

When you spot wildlife at rest, try not to disturb them – the extra energy they’ll spend evading you could be better used to help them keep warm.

Photo credit: Bev Butt

The Basics #2 – Water: Water can cause problems for wildlife in winter in two different ways: there can be too little of it, or it can freeze. Either way, water scarcity can be a challenge for wild animals. Both birds and mammals sometimes resort to eating snow to get the moisture they need, but the colder temperature of the snow can make it harder for their bodies to process.

Frozen water bodies create an extra challenge for wildlife. Besides making the water inaccessible, there is a risk that water-faring animals can become frozen to newly-formed ice if temperatures drop suddenly (particularly overnight).

How to Help: If there has been a sudden decrease in temperature, check local ponds and water sources for any wildlife that may be in distress – in this case, contact your local wildlife rehabilitation centre or the BC SPCA Provincial Call Centre at 1-855-622-7722 to find out how best to help. When temperatures are below freezing, putting out a bird bath or extra water source that is changed daily to prevent icing over is a great way to help your local wild neighbours get a little extra drink.

Photo credit: Wendy McKenzie

The Basics #3 – Shelter: Shelter can also become more important during nasty winter weather than during the more temperate summer months. Many animals migrate or hibernate for the winter, but others brave the snow and rain and stay in their home territory year-round.

This doesn’t mean they are always able to withstand the elements, though. Stormy weather or unseasonably cold temperatures can cause wildlife to take shelter in unlikely places.  If you spot deer, raccoons, or other animals sheltering under decks, inside sheds, or alongside houses, it might be a run of wild weather driving them closer than normal to human dwellings. It’s also common for animals to take shelter in the bumper of your car, especially if the engine is still warm — that’s why it’s important to “think and thump!”

If you notice any wildlife appearing injured or lethargic, call the BC SPCA’s Call Centre at 1-855-622-7722.

How to Help: Birdhouses are a great year-round help for many songbird species. Nesting season does not typically start until early spring, but during the colder winter months many birds will gratefully take advantage of the shelter offered by a birdhouse. On particularly cold nights you might see a surprising number of flock birds like bushtits or wrens taking advantage of a birdhouse together!