A look at nature's winter survival strategies

A look at nature's winter survival strategies

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Winter is the toughest time of year for the UK's wildlife. Nights are long, the days are cold, and food is in short supply. However, nature is nothing if not resourceful, and animals big and small have developed different ways and means of making it through this tough period.

We take a look at some of these winter survival strategies below.

Staying warm

Staying warm is key to making it through the winter. How do animals achieve this? For birds, this is when having feathers really comes in useful. Feathers have excellent insulation properties and trap heat incredibly effectively, which is why they have been used as a bedding material for centuries. During the winter, you'll often see birds puffing out their feathers, which allows as much air to be trapped as possible. When you get goosebumps on your arm due to the cold your body is actually doing the same thing, although it's much less effective in humans!

Other tactics adopted by birds include huddling together to stay warm during the winter. Long-tailed Tits are a perfect example of this. These tiny birds spend the spring and summer in breeding pairs, but will congregate in flocks of up to 50 during the winter to share in each other's warmth. 

Certain mammal species, such as the Fox, stay warm in winter by growing a thicker coat during the cold months. In the far north of the UK, the Stoat and Mountain Hare actually develop a white coat during winter in order to blend into the snowy landscape.

Stoat in winter coat

A Stoat in winter coat

Finding food

For most animals, food is scarce during winter, meaning they have to take an innovative approach to find enough sustenance to survive. Several species achieve this by caching surplus food during the plentiful months of summer and returning to it when winter hits. Jays, for example, have been recorded to cache as many as 5,000 acorns per year. Squirrels are equally industrious and have even been recorded pretending to bury food if they are being watched by a competitor. Caching is actually important for plant reproduction, as any nuts or acorns that are forgotten may well grow into a tree. 

Winter is the most important time of year to feed the birds in your garden and can make a real difference to their survival efforts. Putting out a wide range of foods will ensure you're helping as many species as possible.

Sleep it off

Rather than cope with the cold and lack of food, many animals opt to simply sleep their way through the winter and re-emerge in the spring. All of the UK's amphibians and reptiles hibernate, as do many insect species and a number of mammals, such as the Hedgehog, Dormice and Bats. Essentially, hibernation involves entering a state of dormancy, in which an animal's metabolism slows down dramatically. To make this possible, hibernators have to eat enough food in the spring and summer so that they have sufficient body fat to use as energy during the winter months.

Flee the country

Some birds survive the winter by avoiding it entirely. A large number of migratory birds head south when the winter begins, ranging from tiny species such as the House Martin to large birds like the Crane. Migrating to the sunny climes of southern Europe, Asia or Africa, these birds spend their whole lives without ever experiencing the winter chill! That's not to say they have it easy, however, as migratory species clock up thousands of air-miles over the years. After all, flying from the UK to Africa when you're an 18g House Martin is no mean feat!

Bird food winter

Help birds make it through the winter by putting out a wide range of food