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Winter Wildlife: Tracking & Survival
Revised September 5, 2012

Unit Goals

It's often thought that nature "sleeps" in the winter. In actuality, not only are many animals quite active, but the lack of leaves and presence of snow helps to make the habits of wildlife much more apparent. The goal of this unit is for students to realize how every track and sign tells a story and through this discovery learn how wildlife must adapt and interact to survive the winter.

Summary

Before your visit, please review with your students:

  • Winter's challenge to wildlife
  • Nature pryamid levels
  • Widlife survival strategies
  • Methods of animal movement
  • Types of animal signs
  • Appropriate winter dress

At River Bend we will:

  • During the introduction we will review the above material
  • Explore the winter landscape, searching for stories in animal signs discovered along the way
  • Construct a winter nature pyramid from student observations (visit Nature Pyramid page)
  • Describe the physcial nature of snow and cold air.

In the closing we will:

  • Inquire about students' discoveries
  • Explain further opportunities for winter exploration
  • Remind the students of their next visit
  • Talk of upcoming events at River Bend
  • Invite the students to return on their own with family and friends

Back in the classroom:

  • Further explore how wintery conditions presented unique challenges to wildlife
  • Research animals that are active in winter

Dress for winter!

Dressing right for winter is important! Boots must be worn. Also, gloves or mittens, hat, and a warm jacket should be worn. Snowpants, long underwear, and a scarf are also recommended. If you are not dressed for the weather on the day of the field trip you may be left at school!


Deer Tracks

Tracks

Winter Tracks


What makes winter a tough season to survive?

If we think about what any animal needs to survive in its habitat -- food, water, shelter, space -- then it is easy to appreciate why an animal might find surviving winter a challege! When you read the information below, what animals come to mind?

Food - The primary reason some animals have to adjust where or how they live through winter is because of changes in available food. Since most plants and insects go dormant for the winter, animals that eat them must either have some special adaptation to keep eating them, or find something else to eat.

Water - Animals need water in winter, but it is often frozen as either ice or snow. Animals loose body heat when they eat snow or ice, which is why open water sources are prefered.

Shelter - The leaves are gone from the trees and the ground is frozen, both of which make it harder to make new homes. When the weather gets bad, shelter is more important than ever to help animals conserve heat and avoid getting too wet.

Space - The best places for any particular animal to spend the winter tend to be occupied quickly. Animals sometimes learn to live closer together thus more can survive. Those that can't live in the best places often die in extended cold spells or harsh storms.

How do animals survive the winter?
  1. Hibernation: A state in which an animal decreases its bodily functions and lives on stored fat during the winter. - Examples: Reptiles, amphibians, woodchuck, 13 lined ground squirrel.
     
  2. Migration: A movement of animals to find adequate sources of food. Common in animals that rely on insects or flowers for food. - Examples: Robins, warblers, caribou, monarch butterfly, hummingbirds.
     
  3. Estivation: Animals that go into a dormant state in response to heat, drought, food shortages, or a combination of these stresses. Common in animals that live in the desert. - Examples: Lizards, scorpions, tarantula.
     
  4. Adaptations: Characteristics of plants and animals that help them to survive in their habitat. The other survival methods above are all examples or adaptations. Some physical adapations include thick fur, web feet and an extra fat layer. Behavioral adapations include switching food types and grouping up with other animals.

How do animals move?

Walkers

Their feet never land across from each other, and often (not always) step their hind foot in the same spot that their front foot stepped.
    Examples: Deer, Pheasants, Fox, Dogs, Cats, Racoons

Walkers


Jumpers

Their feet land across from each other at the same time, hind feet occasionally in the same spot as front feet, but often alongside.
    Examples: Rabbits, Squirrels, Weasels, Mink, Mice, Small birds

Jumpers


Prints, Trails, and Paths

A single impression in the snow or mud made by an animal's foot is called a print. A series of these prints made by an individual is called a trail. An accumulation of many trails that form a long, thin depression is called a path or runway, and can be used by one or more species. Runways are often dug under the snow, as well as on top, by animals such as mice, voles, shrews, and weasels.

What other signs of animal life can we find?

  • Scat and Pellets - Scat is used to determine the health of an animal because one of the best methods of determining what goes into an animal is studying what comes out of an animal. The shape color and consistancy vary for different species. Some animals use scat as territory markers.
     
  • Fur/Feathers - Stuck on branches or found on the ground tell where animals have been. Animals may loose fur or feathers when they rub against branches or other rough surfaces or if they are grabbed or attacked by another animal.
     
  • Chew Marks - Indicates that an animal, such as a deer, rabbit, or beaver, was eating in that spot. Due to the type of eating habits and teeth different animals leave different chew marks.
     
  • Tunnels, holes - Demonstrate very common methods of moving around in the snow.
     
  • Food caches and diggings - Shows where an animal, such as red and gray squirrels, have stashed food for future consumption.
     
  • Wing marks, animal remains - These are often found on a site where a struggle for life and death took place.
     
  • Homes - Holes high in the trees or near the ground, leaf or twig nests in branches and runways across paths or under debris are all more visible in winter.
     
  • Sounds - In still winter air an animal can sometimes be heard, but not seen, from quite a distance. Birds and squirrels can be quite vocal in winter.

What's my track?

Tracks

Can you find these tracks in this track print?

Fox - print with claw marks

Sparrow - small bird

Turkey - large bird

Squirrel - feet side-by-side

Deer - hoofed print

Cat - print with no claw marks

Mouse - looks like a chain

Raccoon - looks like hands and feet



More Tracking Resources

Explore animal tracks on the web:

An animal track matching page
http://kids.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=23259

Good detailed info on animal tracking
http://www.princeton.edu/~oa/nature/tracking.shtml

DNR page on life under snow and ice
http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/young_naturalists/snow/index.html

Lots of information about tracking
http://wildwoodtracking.com/


Read a book
  1. Crinkelroot's Book of Animal Tracking 599 Ar
  2. Animal Tracks 591.Ma
  3. Big Tracks, Little Tracks 591 Br
  4. Let's Look at More Tracks 591 Ki
  5. Animal Tracks and wildlife signs 591 Ar
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PO Box 186, 1000 Rustad Rd, Faribault, MN 55021-0186 USA
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