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Wildlife in Winter

A quiet calm seems to come over the landscape during the winter months. But there is more going on than one might think. Many of the birds from summer have gone south, of course, but several species are permanent residents. And mammals remain as well, but their activities may be rather inconspicuous, particularly those living under the snow and ice. Few hibernate.

The mammals we probably see most often during winter are the deer, along with coyotes and fox. And of course, beavers and muskrats are active throughout the winter, but mostly under the ice and in the safely of their lodges. Mink and weasels are also active throughout the winter.

Most of the mammals are sort of like us humans, active throughout the winter, but not nearly as active as during the summer months, and much more prone to hold up at home during the cold spells. That includes the squirrels (red, fox, and gray), prairie dogs, rabbits, badger, skunk, and raccoons.

Many mice, voles, shrews, and pocket gophers are quite active under the big white blanket of snow, some even mating and rearing young. We may occasionally see their tracks going across a snowy surface. The ground squirrels and ground hogs, on the other hand, are hibernating.

Our feathered friends are a bit different. We may commonly see some permanent residents, such as sharp-tailed grouse, magpies, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, and crows to name a few. But birds are known to wander around in search of food during the winter, and occasionally move great distances when the food is in short supply. As a result, we may see birds such as evening and pine grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, siskins, and red-breasted nuthatches show up at our bird feeders.

We may not see many of those wanderers this winter. For several years now, a Canadian ornithologist has gathered information on a variety of aspects relating to finches across much of Canada each year and makes predictions as to where they will spend the upcoming winter. There is an abundance of berries, conifer seeds, and other food items for the finches in Ontario this year, so we may not see many of these visitors this winter. We are a bit west of Ontario, but because we are not far from the northern coniferous forest, we often see a few of these visitors from Canada, so be on the lookout nonetheless.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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