Wildlife in Winter

Grizzly Bear, Alaska

As the northern hemisphere experiences the winter solstice, let’s take a look at how various wildlife species adapt to this season. It’s a fascinating picture, and each animal has a different story.


Some animals hibernate, some go into a more wakeful sleep called torpor, some barely lose a wink, and others migrate. For many creatures, the body changes.


Classic hibernators, like bears, eat large amounts of food in autumn to store fat for survival. They sleep all or part of the winter, and exist primarily on their fat stores. There is a slow-down of heart and respiration rate, and a lowering of the body temperature.


But few animal species have such a defined program–it varies by region, temperature, elevation, and other factors.Β And truth be told, even bears differ widely in their hibernating tactics.


Most big mammals have enough bulk that they do not hibernate. Bison, for example, simply grow a heavier coat to withstand freezing temperatures.


Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP


Bison in Lamar Valley on a snowy day, Yellowstone


Smaller mammals, however, are more inclined to hibernate because little bodies have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio; i.e. it takes more energy for a small animal to stay warm. Many small mammals burrow into the ground to wait out the foodless winter.


Marmot, Mt. Rainier, Washington


Marmots (aka groundhogs) build their fat storage and spend half their lives in hibernation. Prairie dogs, on the other hand, periodically come out of the burrow to munch on grass and then go back to sleep.


Prairie Dog at burrow, Colorado


Every species has a different physiological system for adapting to the food loss of winter.


Reptiles are cold-blooded and depend on the sunshine for metabolic activity.


Skink, California


In winter most reptiles in cold regions find a deep crack or rock cave and sleep through the months of sunless chill. They’re so inactive they don’t eat…don’t need to eat.


If you pick up a lizard who is essentially dormant, they only open their eyes in terror; but they do not move because they can’t.


Northern Alligator Lizard, California


Many species group together for warmth. They huddle while they sleep. That’s how we can sometimes come across a hole filled with snakes, or large colonies of bats.


Eastern Long-eared Bats, Australia


Some snakes and amphibians hibernate underneath water in locations where water doesn’t freeze. Certain snake species use their skin as a lung to extract oxygen from the water.


Even though toads and frogs stay quiet and resting most of the winter where I live, on a fluky mild winter day I will hear a toad call out from its burrow.


Western Toad in burrow, California


Insects transform into larvae, nymphs, eggs, or pupae forms to weather the winter. Others, like the monarch butterfly, migrate to warmer places.


Anise Swallowtail Chrysalis or Pupa


There is endless variation not only in species, but in location too. Here in northern California where the winter is mild, hovering close to freezing for only a month or two, I often discover winter wildlife anomalies.


I’ve read that praying mantis adults, for example, hide their eggs from predators for the winter and then die off. In spring the new insect emerges from the egg and starts the life cycle.


Not where I live. This photo of a loggerhead shrike in the California winter rain about to eat an adult praying mantis proves otherwise.


Loggerhead Shrike preying on a praying mantis, California in January


If winter temperatures do not fluctuate drastically, or are relatively mild, many insects find shelter and food in leaf litter, tree holes, under logs, or in soil or plant galls.


And don’t get me started on what the birds do. Some stay put if they live in a temperate zone, others migrate, and still others tough it out in cold regions. There is only one bird known to hibernate, the common poorwill.Β 


Some birds and small mammals in arctic regions turn white in the frigid months to camouflage with snow. Their bodies adapt in numerous ways. Below are the summer and winter versions of the willow ptarmigan (bird) and snowshoe hare.


Willow ptarmigan, Alaska in August


Willow Ptarmigan Nonbreeding adult

Willow ptarmigan in winter plumage. Photo by John and Ivy Gibbons.

Snowshoe Hare in August, Alaska


Snowshoe Hare, Shirleys Bay.jpg

Snowshoe Hare in winter. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson.


Whatever the season, nature not only has its curious, changing ways, but also unpredictability…just enough to keep the mystery and beauty alive.


Happy Solstice, Happy Holidays, dear reader.


Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted.

Mammalian tourists in winter



97 thoughts on “Wildlife in Winter

    • Your comment gave me a smile, Jane, because admittedly when I was writing about the marmot spending half its life in hibernation, I thought, hmmmm, sounds kinda good. πŸ˜‰ Always a joy to “see” you here, thanks so much. And I give you my warm wishes for a delightful new year of endlessly beautiful images.

  1. What a great post Jet! Gorgeous photo of the bats huddled together, and then the animals who change colour! Wow! Thanks for giving us yet another glimpse of how extraordinary nature is.

    • It is a striking difference, isn’t it Bertie, to see the ptarmigan and hare in their summer plumage, and then their winter plumage. My pleasure to share the marvels of nature with you, thank you.

    • My warmest thanks, Hien, I’m glad I could share new information with you. I never knew the common poorwill hibernated until I did the research for this post. We have them near our property in the spring, now I’m wondering if they spend the winter here. As you know, the birds always keep us on our toes. I find the willow ptarmigan so beautiful in the summer, we were excited to have found them in a riverbed off the road. Won’t ever go to Alaska in winter (yikes), so I was glad I could procure a winter plumage photo. Thank you, my friend.

    • It is always a joy to share the endless beauties of nature, and you are a great audience, Jill. Thanks so much for always stopping by and leaving your lovely words. I hope you, too, have a great and safe holiday.

    • I know you see winter in its cold state, so I’m glad you found the winter wildlife pleasing, Belinda. Thanks so much for your frequent visits, and my very best wishes to you, too, for a happy holiday season.

    • I don’t do much traveling to cold places, so I was glad I could put this post together celebrating the brave creatures of winter. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Anneli. Thanks very much, and happy holidays.

  2. Oh the things that different creatures do to survive winter. The diversity of behaviors that you showcased today is truly amazing (as were the photos). We were fortunate today here in Northern Virginia to have 60 degree temperatures–it does not really feel like the start of winter, not that I am complaining. πŸ™‚

  3. I think your blog should be distributed in schools, Jet. You put your content across in such an interesting way that the mind absorbs it with ease. That is a quality that good teachers possess.

    I have often wondered if you have done any teaching.

  4. Don’t you just wonder how it works for animals like the bison — do they get chilled sometimes? do their ears get cold and when the wind blows does the bison have trouble taking a breath?

    • I found myself wondering similar winter thoughts about all wildlife this week, Bill. That’s what prompted this post. Great wonderment about the bison, Bill. I know that they have a skeletal structure that is built to shovel the snow aside so they can find prey beneath the snow. They’re all troopers, those beauties looking for food in the cold weather. Many thanks.

  5. Great post my friend. Mother Nature has provided for most wild life some kind of survival devise to keep safe during winter weather conditions. It reminded me of:
    β€œ Mother Nature had taken precautions for all species of animals in order to get through harsh winter weather and went to most animals of her creation and promulged to each kind of animals of what would change in their bodies such growing a thick coat of wool, or hair, to others slow down their metabolism and hibernate, and so on… You all will have a way to overcome cold temperatures, yada, yada, yada. A little marmot, rose his little hand and asked,,, – Mother Nature? Excuse me but, we all have new powers to survive winter thanks to you. But, what about the humans? Mother Nature felt a bit annoyed about the question. Pondered for a few seconds and said:
    – Humans can go to L.L. Bean and order Parkas! β€œ
    Thank you! πŸ™‚

    • Your funny store gave me a big smile and chuckle, HJ. I just ordered some LLBean winter clothes last week so I guess this human is prepared for the winter too. Really fun comment, my friend, and most appreciated. Always a joy to “see” you. My warmest wishes for a happy holiday to you and your family, HJ.

  6. Another informative post, and I particularly liked the winter bison shot. We’ve been hunkered down the last little while, with no power for a couple of days and dropping temperatures – but we kept warm enough, and I was quite enjoying a state of candlelit near torpor on the solstice…
    Power is back on now, so it’s been great to catch up on favourite blogs – thanks for this one, and we hope you and Athena have a wonderful weekend!

    • Power is restored, Scout is back…looks like the holiday is in order for you and Mrs. pc, pc. Really glad you enjoyed the winter wildlife post. And my best to you and your family for more joy and adventure during the holiday and in the new year.

  7. Great post Jet. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be such a wide range of behaviours even in a single species but as you say, the conditions vary so much according to where they are, I guess that range of reactions is essential. I sometimes feel like I am in a bit of torpor in winter when the days a so short. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year as we say here in the UK.

    • When we read about the animals and their sleepy torpors, it somehow justifies wanting to take a nap and slow down during these dark, short days, doesn’t it? I’m really glad to receive your wonderful comment, Alastair. I send you and your family my warmest wishes for a sweet holiday and some lovely walks.

  8. So lovely to read and see your wintertime up north… so different to our spanish sunny winter. Thankyou Jet… wishing you a great holiday time and may 2019 bring you many magical moments… love Barbara x

  9. These very short days do not allow for much time spent outside, unless of course it’s appreciating
    the beautiful Cancer Full Moon. Your close ups bring to life these critters we seldom see.
    What a great job! Great seeing them. Thanks Jet.
    Have a warm and wonderful Holiday Season dear friend. Love, Eddie

    • And what a great full moon it has been, hasn’t it, Eddie? I’m glad you enjoyed the winter wildlife post, my friend. And I send my warmest wishes for a happy holiday filled with peace and light.

  10. I kept wondering, “Will she do it?” And of course you did, in that last photo: give a nod, that is, to the human species, which also enjoys a little hibernation from time to time! In my part of the world, winter sends the rattlesnakes and alligators off to the mud or rocks, and outdoors sorts of people celebrate the increased safety their torpor brings. But on a warm, sunny day? Watch closely, and step carefully!

    I especially enjoyed seeing the ptarmigan and hare. There’s something about white creatures in snow that’s so appealing. But all of the photos are delightful, and your writing, as always, is filled with interesting detail. All good wishes to you and Athena for the new year; I hope it’s far less traumatic than the last.

    • In one of my first drafts of this post I had more about the human mammals in winter, and then I took it out because it was all a little “loaded” with religion, etc. But then at the last minute I remembered that photo of the tourists in the rain, and inserted. So I’m really glad you enjoyed that little bit of whimsy, thanks Linda. Always a pleasure to hear from you, and I send best wishes for a delightful new year.

    • Yes, and what a pleasure to witness some of their ways. Always a joy to connect with you, Andrea. I think I’ll bop over to your corner of the world to read your mesmerizing writing. My deep thanks.

  11. Wonderful, informative and delightful. Have I ever told you how much I enjoy your posts? Your information about the Marmot explains a lot. Specifically why it is I’m so prone to hibernating come winter. I was born on Groundhog’s Day, so it just makes perfect sense. πŸ˜€

    • Yes, that does make perfect sense, Gunta! You’re really a marmot at heart. You are so kind in your comments, I always enjoy your wisdom so much, my friend. My best to you and your husband during this holiday season.

      • Wishing you and Athena a warm and wonderful holiday season. Hopefully this coming year will be far less exciting or stressful. But you’re home now and rebuilding your haven and memories. May they be filled with warmth and good cheer!

    • I can tell you enjoy seeing nature in winter, Sherry, by your peaceful, lovely photos of winter in New York. Many thanks for your visit. And a happy holidays to you and your husband.

  12. Jet, I need your advice. My hair keeps on getting whiter and whiter each year. Should I expect a big snowfall soon? Or maybe a white sand beach is in my future?
    Excellent post, and so well researched!
    Merry Christmas!

    • Yes, I suppose the snowfall is coming your way, Dave, with the white hair it seems inevitable. My warmest smiles and thanks to both you and Sue, Dave, for all your visits here throughout the year, as well as all those great posts you entertain us with.

  13. What a wonderful post and the photographs, Jet! Hope all the creatures stay safe this winter. I would love to have a look at a colony of bats cuddled together, but speaking about a hole full of snakes – I’d rather skip this experience, unless they need help, of course πŸ™‚
    Wishing you and Athena a happy New Year!

    • Great to see you, ACI. I really like that toad looking out of the burrow, and the loggerhead shrike shot was a favorite of mine, too. Always a pleasure, my friend, and I bid you and Gabby and your family a great holiday season.

    • I’m enjoying the creature comforts, too, David. And then when I can’t stand being cooped up inside anymore, I venture out into the rain and mud and fresh air, and pretend I’m one of them. It’s a win-win. lol. Sending smiles and love your way, dear friend–wishing you a season of peace, smiles, and comforts.

  14. Pingback: Wildlife in Winter β€” Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  15. Wonderful photographs and explanations Jet. If I were still living in Chicago and having to endure the icy winters, I would be in hibernation too.

    I love those bats…. I have never seen bats that color, only black ones. Most unusual. As is that skink snake with the two tones. The birds are exquisite, especially that pure white one.

    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing. Happy new year.


    • Always a joy to hear from you, Peta. I lived in and near Chicago in earlier years, and those frigid Lake Michigan winters were almost uninhabitable. Great impetus for me to move to California. Glad you liked the bats in Australia, the skink in our back yard, and the willow ptarmigan in Denali NP in Alaska. We took a little trip together! I’m heading your way to see what adventures you’ve been up to. Happy new year to both you and Ben, dear Peta.

  16. So interesting! Always inspiring to learn about the variety and ingenuity of creatures to survive. Loved the mammalian adaptation. This mammal is happy to have adapted by migrating to a warm, sensible climate for a few weeks….

  17. I loved reading this! Hibernation comes in all shapes and sizes, just like animals. I recently saw a 60 Minute segment on the re-emergence of wolves at Yellowstone. Fascinating and wonderful. If you haven’t seen it – check it out. Seems that wolves don’t hibernate at all.
    Happy New Year! Loved your last photo of the wet/cold mammals at the GG Bridge. πŸ™‚

  18. And then there’s “goulashing”: the mammalian practice of snuggling under impossibly high amounts of covers with a loved one, allowing only the minimal amount of eyeball to peek out for a good laugh at one another. Invented by my sweet and hilarious man. 🀣 This was beautiful as always and so interesting. Never really stopped to think about the many ways we critters winter! Thank You Jet! Happy belated Solstice and Cheers! πŸ™‚

      • He’s funny, isn’t he? He’s got a fantastic circus mind. 🀣 And it’s been truly my pleasure! On the one hand I hate how behind I am in blogland…on the other….now and again I just binge-read and wow! It’s truly wonderful. I so enjoyed being in Jet Land for a while!!! πŸ˜€

  19. I’m so glad I found your blog. It combines interests of mine in nature and photography, along with interesting information.

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