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Watching for Winter Wildlife

A close-up shot of a red fox in snow

To survive winter, animals must be able to keep warm and find food and water. If they can't, they must adapt-change their habits to suit the conditions. Some animals migrate-move to a new area where it's easier to find food and stay warm. Others hibernate and sleep the cold months away.

We may not see as many different kinds of animals as in the summer months, but there's still plenty to watch for in winter. We can look for the animals themselves, and we can look for the signs they leave behind as they go about their lives, day and night. The most active animals, such as birds, squirrels and rabbits, are what we'll see most. Other animals, such as deer, foxes and mice, are more secretive. We'll have to watch more carefully for them as we look for the signs they leave behind.

Tracks

A dusting of fresh snow is ideal for looking at tracks. Footprints tell us what kind of animal passed by. If we look closely, we can often figure out what the animal was doing. Squirrels and rabbits often leave tracks criss-crossing the yard. Follow the tracks to see where they lead. They may reveal an animal searching for food, perhaps even following another animal. A great place to look for tracks is near a birdfeeder. Birds sometimes hop in the snow under the feeder. Squirrels, mice and voles visit too, often eating the seeds that have fallen to the ground.

Feeding

Diagram of branches bitten by animals

Twigs bitten away hint that rabbits or deer have been by. Take a closer look at the bite. Are the twigs one to two feet from the ground cleanly bitten off at an angle? A rabbit has been eating. If the twig is bitten off but the cut is jagged, it's from a deer. (Deer tear twigs off as they bite.) Once in a while you may find a spot of blood where one animal has caught another. On very rare occasions, you may even find the "leftovers" from a meal. A bit of fur or feathers, or some other part of the prey (animal that is killed and eaten by another animal), left behind when the predator (animal that kills and eats other animals) was scared away or had its fill.

Scat Chat

Scats left by deer, fox, raccoon and rabbit

Can we talk? After all, what goes in must come out, so another sign to watch for is animal droppings, also known as scat. Sometimes you can find scat near where animals have been eating. Sometimes they mark their territory with scat and urine. With a good field guide to help, you can tell what kind of animal left the scat and what the animal ate. Wintertime rabbit scat is easy to recognize. It looks like small balls of sawdust, from their winter diet of twigs and bark. Foxes and coyotes eat many mice and voles, so their scat has a lot of hair in it. Pellets from owls and hawks are sometimes confused with scat. They are the undigested fur and bones from the small mammals eaten by these birds of prey, coughed up in a neat little package. (Be sure to wear rubber gloves or use a stick if you take scat apart. It sometimes contains harmful parasites.)

Hidden Treasures

Praying mantis egg case covered with frost
frost-covered egg case from a
praying mantis

Most insects spend the winter as eggs or pupae. Egg cases and cocoons can be found by looking closely at plant stems or the underside of leaves which remain on trees and shrubs. The egg case from a praying mantis is straw-colored and looks like a piece of shredded wheat breakfast cereal about the size of a child's thumb. They can be found attached to stems of tall grasses and weeds, especially in overgrown fields.

For more information:

A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes (Little, Brown &Company, New York, 1976)

"A Long Winter Nap" by Anita Sanchez, in Conservationist, December 2006, pp 22-23.

The Seven Sleepers by Phyllis S. Busch (Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1985)

Track Finder by Dorcas Miller (Nature Study Guild Publishers, Rochester, New York, 1981)

Watching Nature by Monica Russo (Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1998)

Photo: Bill Banaszewski, Dave Spier