Iowa's Winter "Slumber" Party

Courtesy of Scientific Beast
 In the depths of winter, we animals of the human variety tend to fall into three categories - those who anxiously strap on their boots at the first sign of a falling snowflake; those that setup shop fireside with a good book and hot coffee/cocoa in hand earnestly waiting for the sun's rays to penetrate the frosted landscape; or those who fall into that "happy medium" category.  But what do our animal counterparts do to pass the time before the days lengthen and the first green shoots emerge from the ground and trees? Animals of all kinds here in Iowa function at both ends of and along the spectrum (hey - just like us!).  Critters will migrate, adapt or hibernate during these frozen winter months.

Hit the road, Jack (or adapt!)

Well-known migratory animals that travel in search of food sources and warmer weather include various songbirds, waterfowl and butterflies.  Adapters are those who stay active in winter and adjust as a result of changing weather conditions. This may mean growing a thicker winter coat of fur. Certain birds will molt their feathers from breeding season into the more subdued and subtle colors of winter plumage. Other adaptations include diet changes. Deer and rabbit thrive on moss, twigs, bark and leaves. Red fox subsist on small rodents in place of the fruits, grasses and insects that were available during the warmer months.

But who hibernates here in Iowa?

Reptiles and amphibians sure do! These two collectively make up a group referred to as "herps", this word derived from herpetology or the study of reptiles and amphibians. Herps rely on radiant heat from the environment for body temperature regulation, making them ectothermic creatures. During the cold winter months, herps hibernate as a means to slow body functions which conserves energy needed for life. Hibernation for these critters usually occurs at the bottom of ponds and lakes, buried in mud or below the frost underground. 

What about mammals? Which ones hibernate?

Here in Iowa, we can expect raccoons, skunks, bats, and chipmunks to enter into light (elongated periods of sleep but still awaken) to true hibernation dependent upon the species. Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are a prime example of true hibernation where heart rate goes from 80 beats per minute to only about 5 beats. Their body temperature also drops to a staggering 60 degrees Fahrenheit below their normal temperature! This allows woodchucks to conserve a tremendous amount of energy until they emerge from their slumber.

Iowa Winter Wonder Birds

Bald eagles are starting to nest this month. Check along rivers where old trees stand and look for these eagle's massive nests. Below dams provide a perfect location to view bald eagles. Would you like more guidance on where to search for these birds? Join us on February 22nd at several different locations around Saylorville Lake and the Des Moines River for the Bald Eagle Watch. Stop by the Saylorville Visitors Center to learn about our national symbol. Then venture out to different areas around the lake to observe them in their natural setting. The Jester Park Lodge will be hosting a live eagle used for education. Hourly programs at 1, 2, and 3:00 p.m. will give you a close look at this amazing species.

This is also a great time to listen for owls. Great Horned Owls are nesting as well this month.  Any of our parks provide the opportunity to catch a glimpse of these creatures of the night. Best places to call and spot an owl in our parks include Jester Park, Yellow Banks Park, and Thomas Mitchell Park in the evening. 

Whether cozied up for a long winter's nap, adapting to the changing landscape, or hitting the proverbial road out of town, animals of all shapes and sizes find ways to make it through to the final spring thaw. We look forward to seeing you, our favorite local wildlife, in our parks and along our trails through every amazing season in Iowa!


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