Winter has come early to Virginia thanks to Hurricane Sandy joining up with some low-pressure systems from the west and the north. I love the hunkering down feeling of a storm coming. I get excited planning for cozy fires, soul food, and even power outages. Two days before Sandy made landfall, I noticed this same frenzy of preparations in other animals during my walk, and throughout the day.
A pair of Pileated woodpeckers was doing their concentric tree trunk hopping with more pep in their step, quickly searching for a few more insects to tide them over if the wind became too strong to hunt. Overhead, flocks of red-winged black birds and grackles were heading somewhere more hospitable to their habitat needs, much as we head to the store to buy emergency supplies to add comfort to our habitats. A box turtle appeared near the wall outside my kitchen window. He was moving cautiously, already cold perhaps. It is about a quarter mile to the closest patch of woods, and I wondered if I should help him get there. He needs to dig a burrow about 10 cm below the soil surface for the winter. Perhaps he will just ride this storm out under some leaves and then get to his business of hibernating.
I also saw two black snakes this week. When reading about snake hibernation, I came across a site that said snakes never go in a crawlspace. Ha! They’ve never checked my crawlspace. We have found shed snakeskin over the years in our crawlspace or any space a snake could crawl in our house (see my previous post on Elaphe obsoleta). Both snakes were traveling in the opposite direction of the house though, presumably in search of a hibernaculum such as a rock crevice or rotting log. Black rat snakes are known to hibernate in groups and even in mixed-species groups such as with timber rattlers, copperheads, and bull snakes (we do not have bull snakes in Virginia). I’ve wondered about this arrangement given that black rat snakes will also eat copperheads. Definitely a case of strange bedfellows!
On the domestic front, my chickens spent a lot of time eating. Somehow they too knew they might not want to venture downstairs once the storm started. My dog Toc was very playful, leaping and twisting in the air, and then stopping in front of me, a clear indication that she wanted to play. Does she feel the same quickening in her heart that I feel when the leaves go skipping wildly down the street, the same excitement that turned my walk into a run?
I got to thinking about how animals will complete their frenzied activities and actually settle down, either for this current storm or for the whole winter. Some will undergo a true hibernation with suspended metabolism like frogs, turtles, groundhogs, and snakes. The wood frogs’ blood and body fluids actually freeze, but instead of its cells bursting from the ice crystals that form, the wood frog has a mechanism to increase glucose and urea, which act as antifreeze for its blood.
Some animals such as bears will just slow their metabolism and venture out if conditions periodically warm over the winter. Black bears are capable of not urinating for months at a time – I’d settle for just a six-hour car ride – but such a feat would be toxic to us. Bears can recycle the toxic urea into useful amino acids. They also are capable of maintaining muscle and bone strength while inactive. If we tried to sleep curled up for months without moving, we would have muscle atrophy and brittle bones.
Some animals, of course, will not hibernate at all. Deer, turkey, squirrels, and rabbits will ride out the storm and then venture out to eat as soon as they can. We are like these animals. Except we tend to eat a lot. Holiday parties and feasts seem more decadent in the winter than in the summer for us. Deer, turkey, squirrels, and many songbirds will have to do with twigs and leftover greens or seeds they can find under the snow.
I find animal adaptations amazing, especially those adaptations that allow for survival in extreme weather and cold temperatures. I am awed by how they know to get ready, how they know what to do, and how resilient they are. I am not, however, envious. I’d much rather haul in some wood, huddle by the fire, and even deal with power outages, than wait it out under the mud with antifreeze in my blood. It would be so much harder to drink wine that way.