Northwoods Winter Wildlife

Here in the North, where it can get frigid and frozen during the winter months, the tendency is to settle down for a long winter nap. But there is a surprising amount of action in the snowy forests and fields of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin as feathered and furry animals search for food and fight to stay warm.

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Dark-eyed juncos are the bird equivalent of human “snowbirds.” In Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, they appear as winter sets in and then largely retreat northward when spring arrives. This charming member of the sparrow family is one of the most abundant forest birds of North America. You’ll see it in the woods, at your feeder or hopping around below it searching for seeds.

In addition to the birds that show up at your feeders in the winter, you may be surprised to see an opossum searching around on the ground underneath it. They don’t hibernate and need to forage for food each day, which makes winter a tough time for them. Not to mention that they often suffer from frostbite on their hairless ears and tails. Their lifespans are short, but this marsupial has been around since prehistoric times, so they must be doing something right.

Red foxes are fast, which makes them great hunters, but their keen hearing may be even more important. They can pinpoint the faint rustling of mice under several feet of snow, take a flying leap, dive headfirst into the snow and come up with lunch.

Winter may be the best time to spot a bobcat. In the summer months, they tend to move around early in the morning and toward evening, but in winter they hunt during the daytime. Snowshoe hares and cottontail rabbits are their favorite food, but they are not picky and will dine on other mammals, birds and even reptiles.

Speaking of snowshoe hares, these long-eared mammals change coats from brown to white in the winter to blend in with the snow and help them hide from bobcats and other predators looking for a tasty meal. Their big back feet, shaped like snowshoes, help them stay on top of the snow.

Winter is a great time for eagle watching. When lakes and rivers freeze over, bald eagles congregate in large trees along shorelines where dams and power plants provide open water where they can fish. It’s also a great time for biologists to conduct aerial surveys to see how this bird, once on the brink of extinction, is doing.

Bears are power eaters, stuffing themselves with berries, nuts, small mammals and more in the warmer months. In late fall or early winter, they head to their dens for a long nap, lowering their body temperature and slowing their heart rate and respiration dramatically so they can make it through winter.

Moose are built for winter!  In fact, they only live in parts of the world where there is seasonal snow cover. Their hair is hollow, which helps insulate them in cold weather, and their large hooves act like snowshoes, enabling these very large animals to walk in deep snow.

The white-winged crossbill loves spruce and other conifer seeds, and its bill is adapted to pry them loose from their cones. This lovely crossbill is one of several boreal, or northern, finches that leave Canada and other northern habitats when food is scarce and “irrupt” farther south in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota where food and feeders are more plentiful.

The howl of a timber wolf on a snowy night will lift the hair on the back of your neck! Wolves have a coarse outer layer of hair and a silky inner layer that keeps them warm even in the coldest winters. The warmth of their footpads is maintained just above the temperature where tissue freezes so they don’t get frostbite!

A member of the weasel family, the fisher is a fierce hunter that pursues its prey into tunnels that animals create underneath the winter snow. Fishers climb trees using their sharp claws, and their ability to climb down a tree trunk headfirst makes them one of the few predators that can take down a porcupine.

At times, large numbers of snowy owls from the Arctic tundra make their way south to the northern U.S. in a dramatic event known as an “irruption.” Whether they come because there is not enough food or too much at home is up for debate right now, but what is certain is that they delight anyone lucky enough to see them.

Who makes conservation possible?  You do! Help us protect the beauty and health of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s forests and grasslands for people and wildlife today and every day.

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