Life in Winter

When the temperature reaches far below zero, we often think of the outside as the dead zone.

By Bruce Auchly

FWP Region 4 Information Officer

When the temperature reaches far below zero, we often think of the outside as the dead zone.

Plants and mammals are asleep. Birds have flown south. Yeah, there are exceptions but generally we equate winter’s long nights and cold temperatures with death.

Here’s a wake-up call: Nature in winter is alive. Whether in the woods on the prairie or right smack downtown life is teeming even when we don’t see it.

Let’s start where it’s obvious: the bird feeder in the yard. In town you may have mostly house sparrows and finches, eating bird seed and surviving.

Meanwhile, lurking in the bushes nearby might be a sharp-shinned hawk, looking to snare a careless sparrow.

 

Great horned owls remain here all winter, eating, even mating, no matter what the temperature.

Depending on your town, there are gray squirrels and cottontail rabbits scurrying about trying to avoid the neighbor’s house cat. And if it’s night, the rabbits and cats are both in the sights of a great horned owl.

Which brings us to love in the cold.

Now into February, great horned owls are breeding. All that hooting you hear at night isn’t just the local owls harmonizing for fun. They looking for mates.

After mating, the owls will continue to hoot, not so much to proclaim their love and affection but to stake out a territory and warn other owls away.

The bald eagle also mates and lays eggs in winter. By the end of February, many Montana eagles are sitting on eggs.

Why would eagles and owls mate and lay eggs now? Because it takes so long to raise their young; they will be teaching their young to hunt in the summer when prey is abundant and easier to catch.

On the prairie under that blanket of snow, life – and death – continue. Various rodent species are about looking for seeds to eat, while close behind might lurk a least weasel wanting to feast on a morsel of mouse meat.

On top of the snow, coyotes sit and listen with their incredible hearing for the sound of a meadow vole running around. The coyotes hearing is so acute they can pounce on and capture a rodent underneath the snow without ever seeing it.

And cruising just above the prairie will be a rough-legged hawk, a winter resident from the far north, looking for that same rodent. It’s tough to be mouse.

Insects are mostly dead or asleep in their larval stage, but honeybees, which are not native to North America, are very much alive clustered in a man-made hive or, perhaps, an old tree.

Another insect very much alive in the winter woods is the snow flea. On a mild, sunny winter day, you may come upon a patch of snow that looks like someone spilled a can of black pepper.

Closer inspection will reveal a tiny insect jumping about. It’s the snow flea, also known as the springtail. While harmless to us, this minute insect, which lives under leaves and on tree bark, performs its civic duty by eating organic debris on the forest floor.

Of course in the forest are daily life and death cycles: carnivores both winged and afoot looking for rodents or hares to eat.

And you thought nothing was going on outside today.