Written by Rome Marinelli, Naturalist at The Inn at Honey Run
Have you ever wondered what happens to birds, mammals, fish, frogs or insects during our Ohio winters? Some stay, some go, some hunker down, some toughen up, some make their way as adults and some as eggs.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of birds that stay behind to embrace Ohio’s winters, while others migrate to a warmer location. But did you know some birds choose Ohio as their warmer vacation spot?! Birds that migrate to Ohio for winter include the snowy owl, snow bunting, snow goose and a few others. Winter here is warmer than their breeding grounds – the Arctic. Native birds that stay during the coldest months hunker down by better insulating their bodies, storing fat, or changing their diet from insects to seeds and berries. Meanwhile, the arctic “tourists” just enjoy the Ohio weather.
For us at the Inn, it’s not uncommon to see the occasional Raccoon activity throughout winter, although all of it occurs on our bird feeders – so there is a motive! Raccoons don’t hibernate, but will wait out the really frigid days in a den. The same goes for skunks and opossums. Deer, rabbits, and fox undergo adaptations to help get through the winter. White-tail deer develop a thicker winter coat for added protection and insulation. Rabbits change their diet from lush vegetation to dried grasses, bark, and woody stems. Foxes also change their diet from invertebrates, small mammals, and berries to primarily small rodents and birds. Bears, bats and ground hogs, on the other hand, are true hibernators. This means their entire metabolic rate decreases, body temperatures drops, and breathing and heartbeats slow. Hibernation requires less energy which allows the animal to sleep for months on accumulated fat.
Other wildlife that hibernates through Ohio’s winter includes fish and aquatic frogs. Aquatic frogs hibernate underwater, atop the mud, or partially buried and use their skin to breathe by filtering the oxygen from the water. Terrestrial frogs and toads hibernate on land by digging into the soil and settling below the frost line. Wood frogs and spring peepers find an overwintering site in logs, stumps or huddled up under accumulated fallen leaves. What’s stopping these frogs from becoming frog-cicles? A high concentration of glucose in the frog’s vital organs act as antifreeze that keeps it from freezing solid – even when completely encapsulated in ice! For fish, winter means hunkering down to lower levels of ponds, lakes, and streams where warmer waters lurk.
Lastly, let’s address insects. Some insects migrate – most widely known is the Monarch butterfly – but many get cozy beneath leaf litter, in the soil, bark, or rotten logs. For those who choose to stay, not freezing is the name of the game. Freezing to death for an insect isn’t so much associated with low temperatures, but rather the formation of ice crystals within the body which expand and causes organ damage. Some insects are freeze-tolerant, which means they survive this ice crystal formation. Others are freeze-avoidant, which means they produce specialized carbohydrates that lower the freezing point of their body fluid and prevent ice crystals from forming.
Interestingly, some insects make their way through the winter as eggs. For example, the bagworm overwinters as eggs in the shell of its deceased mother, and praying mantids survive in an egg case usually attached to a hardy stem. Some insects overwinter as juveniles or pupae, such as the Black Swallowtail butterfly, which endures the winter as a chrysalis (pupal stage) attached to a twig or flower stem – a good reason to avoid early cleanup of your flowerbeds – and the Imperial moth, which burrows into the soil and pupates to pass the time until spring.
Someone wishing for antifreeze abilities.