Friday, January 21, 2011

Homestead Animals Adapt for Winter

Homesteaders were a hardy bunch of people. They endured snowstorms, drought, locust swarms, tornadoes, loneliness, failed crops and illness. If they weren’t survivors, then they probably were not successful in staying on their 160 acres for 5 years. They had to adapt to the conditions around them in order to get through many types of weather conditions and tough circumstances.

Not unlike the homesteaders, the animals that inhabit the tallgrass prairie have to find ways to survive, especially in winter. Prairie animals have a couple of options. They can stay and tough it out, leave, or miss the whole thing by sleeping it away. What would you do if you were an animal on the prairie? Who would you prefer to be: the woodchuck, who hibernates, the white-tailed deer, who remains active, or a migrating bird?

If you are an animal who hibernates, you have the ability to slow down your breathing and heart rates and your body temperature can significantly drop. In the late summer and fall, you prepare by building up fat reserves by feeding heavily. Hibernators typically spend their winter underground, by making or finding underground burrows to reside in through the winter months. Some hibernate alone, while others do so in groups.

Dickcissel at Homestead Monument. Photo by Mel Mann
 If you are an animal who migrates, depending on how far you must fly, you have to store enough energy or have places along the way to stop and refuel. Prairie birds like the dickcissel winter in Venezuela and other South American countries, but western meadowlarks only go as far south as they must to find the weather and food to survive. They go where they find the food and weather conditions that are right for them.

If you are an animal that remains awake and alert all winter, you have to be resourceful to find enough food. Your diet changes fairly significantly because the ground can be covered by snow and frozen. Birds and mammals that eat insects in the summer switch to eating seeds in the winter. Squirrels and other small mammals collect food during the fall and live off that through the winter. Cottontails and deer, who eat green leaves and stems in the summer months, eat any tender twigs and buds they can find. Mammals will grow a thicker coat, but much of their survival is dependent upon the environmental conditions and the food that they find. It’s a bit tougher for them, don’t you think?

Who would you rather be on the prairie in winter? Much like the homesteaders, the prairie animals today have strategies and adapt to the winter conditions each year to survive.

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