This has been quite a winter! All the snow and extreme cold that we have endured the past few months has certainly made even the most dedicated outdoor winter enthusiast looking fondly toward spring. Now that the sun is rising earlier and setting later each day, we know that spring will someday return to the Straits of Mackinac.
It is pretty easy to list the problems that a “real” winter like this one cause in our lives, and to imagine the challenges it presented to folks living here hundreds of winters ago. Most of us are thankful we have technology to help us survive winters like this one. Now imagine the challenges winter presents to the wildlife of the Straits of Mackinac area. And they have been surviving Mackinac winters a lot longer than we have.
Over the years we have probably learned a few survival techniques from the local wildlife. We have modified the wildlife practices of migration, hibernation, insulation, food storage, and energy conservation to help us get through the winter.
If you have ever taken a snowshoe hike or cross country skied though the forest on Mackinac Island or near Mill Creek, you probably noticed a lot fewer birds, animals and even people than when you traveled that same trail in the summer. Many birds and animals, like some people, simply avoid winter by migrating to warmer climates or hibernating through the worst of the winter.
For wildlife, to eat is to survive, and it is a lot harder to find food during the winter. Migration seems like the perfect solution for birds, but not all birds migrate. Probably, because there are both pros and cons to migration., Yes, it is warmer down south, so they don’t need to eat extra food to stay warm and it is easier to find food that’s not covered with snow and ice. However, the actual trip is the most dangerous time of any bird’s adult life. The object is to get where you are headed as quickly as possible, while avoiding the costs and hazards of long distance travel, like predators, bad weather, getting lost or running out of fuel. Sound familiar?
Once winter is over, the birds have to head north again so they can spread out to set up and defend the large feeding and nesting territories they’ll need to raise a family. Many birds don’t survive the trip north. So, some birds choose not to migrate south in the first place, or just migrate a very short distance from their nesting territories. We call these birds year-round residents. Some local examples are the Black-capped Chickadee, Common Raven, Ruffed Grouse, Downy and Pileated Woodpeckers.
Remembering that finding enough food and conserving their energy is the key to surviving the cold, these local birds behave differently during the winter. Their young have fledged, so they don’t worry about feeding others. They don’t have to spend energy singing and chasing other birds away from a nesting territory. Local birds that eat insects in the summer switch their diet to seeds and buds during the winter. When they find food, some birds even take and hide it like many mammals do.
Feathers give birds the ability to fly and have excellent insulation properties. Perched birds always look fatter in cold weather, because they fluff out their body feathers to keep the cold air further from their skin. In the winter you will see small groups of birds moving through the forest together looking for food. A major reason they flock with other birds during the winter is the hope that at least one member of the group will locate some food source that they will all be able to use. It is also good to have more than one set of eyes watching for predators.
Yes, spring will return and here in the Straits of Mackinac area, we will welcome among other things; blue skies, open water, spring wildflowers and thousands of migrating birds (and visitors) all part of our seasonal return to warm weather normalcy.