The wild species on which some PEI animals survive the winter
While there hasn’t been much snow in the province so far this winter, Prince Edward Island has recently experienced some record low temperatures.
Some animals hibernate or leave PEI for warmer places as winter approaches, but many others persevere.
They can do this by making some adjustments.
Kate MacQuarrie is Director of Forests, Fish and Wildlife in PEI’s Environment Division.
She is a professional biologist and naturalist who shares her knowledge of eating wild foods and tracking wild animals on social media, giving workshops and speaking engagements.
We asked them to pick some of the more interesting animals that spend the winter on PEI, no matter how cold it gets.
MacQuarrie said snowshoe hares are often the first animals people think of when it comes to winter adaptations to wildlife at PEI
They turn white in winter and have large hind feet that appear like snowshoes.
When it comes to what they eat, things get a little gross.
“Snowshoe bunnies are not strict vegetarians. So when it gets really cold, they actually eat dead wildlife, including dead snowshoe hares,” she said.
“And they will pick up their own feces again. So if you think of an animal that eats bark and buds and things like that – not much energy, hard to digest. So they discard it. It becomes coated in bacteria that help break it down, then they ingest it again to go through a second digestion process.”
Snowshoe hares are active throughout winter but spend cold, windy days under dense spruce trees.
This also helps them stay out of sight of predators.
If you look closely, you might be able to see their tracks, MacQuarrie said. They look like they’re leapfrogging, with two large hind feet that land in front of two offset front feet.
“It’s a very distinctive track. Sometimes they spread their toes; they spread them. When the snow is soft, the tracks can look huge – it looks like a monster,” she said.
MacQuarrie said that many people on PEI refer to the ruffed grouse as a partridge.
Grouse have customizations that allow them to walk through snow more easily by crafting their own “snowshoes”.
“There are small finger-like protrusions on the sides of their feet. This is called pectination and it really just increases the surface area of the foot to make it easier for you to walk in the snow. It also helps them get traction in icy conditions,” said MacQuarrie.
But they are only for the winter. When spring comes, they fall off.
MacQuarrie said ruffled grouse might have a harder time finding a comfortable place to roost this winter. Grouse like lots of fluffy snow, which they dip into to keep themselves warm and safe while they sleep.
“So this year will be a bit challenging for them,” she said.
“While we don’t want to say very many good things about it [post-tropical storm] Fiona, some of those fallen spruce trees make really great shelter for things like ruffed grouse this year… you can see where they sleep because they leave piles of poo.
The birds feed mainly on buds in winter. And once again Fiona had an advantage.
“Some of these trees that have fallen – so things like poplars that have now fallen – have put more buds within reach of our ruffed grouse. That gives them a little extra protection this year and a little more food.”
MacQuarrie loves these “beautiful little fellows”.
“They’re active all winter, but they go into torpor, so it’s not really hibernation. But during the day, they just slow down their metabolism so they don’t use as much energy. And they’re more active at night just to avoid predators they might see in daylight,” she said.
Deer mice keep warm by snuggling together in nests, which are sometimes found in warm, dark places like boots or the backs of sofas.
“They build nests of comfortably warm material…if they don’t have access to fiber or wool or hair or the like, they’ll use grass and leaves to build a nice warm nest, and a group of them will huddle together.” So you have that body heat from a group of animals and not from each animal separately,” MacQuarrie said.
She said the mice don’t want to expend too much energy during the winter, so they build small hideouts or clusters of seeds to feed on throughout the winter.
One notable adaptation of deer mice is how they internally adapt to really cold temperatures.
MacQuarrie said they actually increase their red blood cell production.
“Red blood cells help you carry oxygen throughout your body and aid in this metabolic process. It gives them a little extra energy, and that extra energy makes them tremble. And of course the shivering generates heat, just enough heat to keep them as warm as they need to be to survive the coldest temperatures.”
Spring scouts are also known as choir frogs because of the noise or chirping they make in spring.
MacQuarrie said spring scouts could actually freeze in winter because they make their own antifreeze that keeps them alive.
“The thing about ice is that it’s sharp, and if it freezes in a cell, it will rupture and kill that cell. So spring peepers squeeze as much water out of their cells as they can … and they concentrate sugars in the cells,” MacQuarrie said.
“This increased sugar acts like an antifreeze in the cells. And if the animal does freeze, the ice will form outside the cell, where it won’t do any damage.”
Spring peepers don’t go below the frost line, MacQuarrie said. They dig themselves into the mud at the edges of ponds or into leaf litter. When their sugar is gone in the spring, they wake up.
“When the temperatures outside get warmer, that wakes them up and they dig out and start singing really nice and early,” she said.