By Julia Coey
It is easy to forget about wild animals in the winter.
Lazy walks in the sun, enjoying the sights and sounds of birds, the antics of squirrels, the lucky glimpse of a fox are all a distant memory when the temperature drops.
Bundled up and rushing from one heated place to another on those frigid days, we imagine wild animals must be sleeping (hibernating) or have skipped town (migrated). And lots have. Hummingbirds. Long gone. Turtles. Sleeping under layers of mud until spring.
Which crazy animals stick out the cold weather with us?
One in particular might be a shock.
The American robin. Given that most people erroneously equate the robins’ return with the start of spring, it may surprise you to learn they’ve never really left – at least not in the traditional way.
Instead of following a standard yearly winter migration route, robins flock together in groups of 50 to 100 birds and search for food. When they find a resource-rich area, they stay, regardless of how far south it is. With insects scarce in the winter, robins switch to eating mostly fruit such as crab apples, juniper berries and rose hips.
We can thank blue jays and cardinals for hanging in there and splashing a bit of colour across the grey winter canvas. Raccoons and squirrels still scamper around in the snow. Both species take cover when the weather is frigid, but remain active during milder winter days.
Opossums have slowly been moving north to Ontario from the southern states for decades. However, opossums are not well-suited for freezing temperatures; their paper-thin pink ears and tail get frost-bitten easily. They don’t hibernate, but during cold snaps they can stay tucked away in dens for weeks, living off their fat stores.
Unlike the ill-prepared opossums, the red fox is active all year and has thick fur between its foot pads and on its ears – an effective barrier against frostbite. Its coat also becomes thicker in the winter. Pigeons manage the cold by alternating feet, tucking one leg up under their belly at time so they don’t freeze to the ground.
Try to remember our wild neighbours this winter. As the temperature drops and ice and snow cover the ground, wild animals are also at risk of developing hypothermia and frostbite. The sooner they are found and brought to a wildlife rehabilitator like Toronto Wildlife Centre, the better their chance of survival.
Hang in there, it will be spring before we know it.
Julia Coey is a writer and development coordinator at Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC). TWC is a charity, relying on donations to run wildlife community education programs and an emergency wildlife hotline, dedicated wildlife rescue team and veterinary and rehabilitation programs that help about 5,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals a year. Visit www.torontowildlifecentre.com or www.torontowildlifecentre.com/toronto-wildlife-centre-psa