February 1, 2008
By Sue Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
Though February is technically the heart of winter, you’ll notice that the days are getting longer. At the beginning of February we have 10 hours of daylight, and by February’s end we’ll be up to 11 hours of daylight.
February is a challenging month for most over-wintering animals. Woody shrubs and woody vegetation don’t supply the nutrition for animals that summer greens can. In fact, the high cellulose content in woody shrubs means that the animals will need more time and precious energy to digest the material. Energy is so valuable during this time of the year that many animals, including deer and squirrels, will reduce their movement drastically just to conserve energy. February and March are months that you may think twice about shooing the squirrels away from your bird feeders because they may need the wood as much as the birds.
Keep your eyes out for signs of deer. Primarily browsing animals, they will eat acorns, fungi and grass. They also browse on twigs of basswood, ironwood, sugar maple, staghorn sumac, and other trees and shrubs, eating mostly pencil-sized woody parts. This diet creates a deer population that needs to eat almost continuously in order to get enough nutrients to remain strong and healthy. Biologists have found that a healthy deer can eat 10-to-12 pounds of browse every day. A deer could survive on 2-to-3 pounds per day; 6-to-8 pounds are needed continuously. However, white-tailed deer will also catch and eat fish in shallow streams, eat small birds, and dig through snow to feed on wintering colonies of ladybug beetles. Unlike most mammals, deer do not have front teeth on their upper jaw. It can be easy then to differentiate when looking for deer browse. A tough chewed twig is common as deer browse, while other "twig eaters" like snowshoe hares and rabbits create a sharp-edged cut.
Many of Wisconsin's larger animals, especially large birds and carnivores, begin their breeding seasons during this time of year. Female wolves, foxes and coyotes will become impregnated and expect to give birth in late April or May. Female black bears are quite lucky as their cubs are born while "mom" is either sleeping sound or rather hazy from a few months of uninterrupted sleep. After being born the cubs will snuggle in close to mom's armpits near where her teats are located, a characteristic unlike most mammals. Also during this time, crows, ravens, barred owls and great horned owls will start their courtship to attract a mate. The courtship of crows and ravens consists of aerial acrobatics to impress a mate. This can be easy to observe as the birds will twirl, twist, nose-dive and do all other sorts of "stunts." Male owls, on the other hand, will call and hoot until a mate is found. Afterwards they will steal the nest that another animal has created, such as a squirrel den or broad-wing hawk nest.
As the days get longer, the internal clocks of many bird species will trigger them to begin their migration north. Some of the early arrivals may begin to show up during February, like juncos, gulls and maybe even an early robin. In no time at all, waterfowl, blackbird and grackles will be showing up.
One of the most active yet rarely seen mammals during the wintertime is the beaver.
As most ponds and lakes are frozen the beaver will remain very active underneath the ice.
During the fall, beaver’s will drag branches of their favorite trees into the water near their lodge. They then can sneak out of their lodges through an underwater entrance to each food cache. A beaver’s lodge is built so well that even on the coldest days their lodge can remain at a temperature well above 40 degrees.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.