In the cycle of seasonal rounds, winter is a time when many organisms—plants, animals, and humans—slow down. But in the morning after a fresh snowfall, there are tracks that make you wonder exactly who’s awake and who’s hibernating. And after our January warm spell, there’s a real mystery about earthworms. Don’t they “sleep” in the cold winter weather?
Cottontail rabbits are busy around our house all winter. They’re not hibernating. They’re so thick that they follow the same “bunny highway”, both before and after I put my tracks down. There are some areas on our lawn where the snow is thin and the rabbits have harvested the dry grass…a lot. One of those “bunny pastures” is shown in the photo on the right. We see bunnies and birds all winter. Although there are other critters that we don’t directly observe, they do leave trails to let us know that they’re not hibernating either.
In the morning after a fresh snowfall, we can see the results of the mouse patrols during the previous night. This looks like a random walk experiment, but it was no doubt a focused search for food. The snow wasn’t deep enough to hide this guy’s tunneling, but in another part of the trail he pops out and digs down to get to the seeds and then continues on his way. On still another part of the trail, he leaves the exposed tunnel and we can see his individual footprints.
But, that mouse is not alone. There’s a coyote out hunting for food too. The mouse tracks look different on these two photos, so maybe they’re documenting two different types of mice or maybe different body weights? But in both cases, a coyote crossed the mouse trails. He wasn’t sleeping either on the night after the fresh snow and he doesn’t eat seeds or dry grass. He eats mice and bunnies!
“Varmints” are animals that cause a problem, but that definition is a little like the definition of “weeds”. It all depends on your perception. Milkweeds are good for attracting monarch butterflies and pigweed used to provide food for Native Americans. If you have new lambs, coyotes can be a problem. But, they also keep the populations of bunnies and mice from exploding. If you think that coyotes are “bad guys”, here’s a link to a prairie ecologist in Nebraska with some science that says otherwise. Coyotes serve an important purpose and so are welcome in our pasture and around our farmyard.
There are some other animals that aren’t so welcome in winter or in summer. Skunks, woodchucks, raccoons, and possums have all caused problems when they make themselves at home in one of our sheds or dig under the old house. They’re fine if they poop in the pasture or they poop on the lawn, but if they poop on my porch, They are varmints!
Now, how about that earthworm mystery? The photo on the left was taken earlier this fall and shows piles of earthworm castings where they were busy in the bare, high-traffic area near a stock tank. Those piles of castings are slightly worn down and flattened; early in January you couldn’t see them at all. The photo on the right was taken at the same spot after the warm spell that we had about mid-January. The piles of castings have been restored. So, don’t earthworms hibernate? Or maybe the warm temperatures “woke” them up? Maybe global warming will help the health of our soils?
And so we’ve reached the end of our story about critters hibernating in the wintertime. Here are the tracks of an animal (maybe a raccoon?) that’s awake and traveling west in the pasture toward the sunset. Turning around to look east, we can see the trail that marks some poor old guy wandering around looking at the tracks of mice and coyotes. But he is headed back home.
Clever! A fun, interesting read.
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Just found my way over here from a segment of a talk that you gave on the Prairie Podcast. I’m also a retired geologist and enjoyed reading through several of your posts filed under Earth Science.
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