Harvest season is here, and all the animals in New Hampshire are busy stocking up on their reserves for the long winter to come. Whether they hoard food for later consumption, or accumulate a thick layer of fat to survive the winter, now is the time to act, and there are a variety of methods used by different animals.
One of the better-known techniques is to eat as much as possible to get enough fat stores to survive the winter months. This is the method our black bears use, which is one of the reasons they are seen frequently this time of year as they travel widely across landscapes in search of food, and as omnivores, they will eat almost anything they can find. This year they will reap plenty of harvests of high calorie grain delivered by the oak trees in recent weeks. The acorn has been the most important pole crop for bears – and many other species – since the American chestnut tree disappeared from New England due to a chestnut disease around 1900.Previously the chestnut tree was the dominant species in the eastern United States and provided a good food supply. lots to lots of animals. Bears will continue to eat until a good layer of snow is formed and food becomes scarce. At that point a bear will begin winter naps, which are not true hibernation but a state of deep sleep called indolence, which means that it can be awakened if disturbed, and it will wake itself up on a warm winter day looking for it. for more food.
Deer will also consume as much as possible during fall, and this includes eating acorns, but unlike black bears, they will remain active throughout the winter. In early winter, deer will rummage through the snow under the oak trees to find acorns buried under the leaves, continuing their good calorie intake until early winter. As the weather gets colder and snow piles increase, they will greatly reduce their energy-saving activity, limiting their travel to areas of dense forest known as deer yards. Many deer will congregate in these yards which are often in thick hemlock stands that protect them from the elements. Large groups help pack the snow, making their journey easier as they consume the little green vegetation they can find to add to their fat stores.
The smaller animals that remain active all year round do not have sufficient body size to build up fat stores during the winter, so this time they collect and store food for the winter, and even in this method there are many variations. Some rodents, such as squirrels, will store food in their nests to eat during the winter. Like black bears, squirrels experience torpor, waking up periodically to eat from their stockpile, and will even come out on warm winter days to scurry over the snow in search of food – especially under your bird feeder!
Many of our winter bird-dwellers have no food supply, but will hide the seeds one by one, often in crevices of bark in trees, and somehow manage to have the extraordinary memory of being able to find them. again in winter. The Nuthatch did this, as did the Canada Jays, who were smart enough to hide their seeds above the midwinter snow line, an important factor considering they live in the far north and in the highlands in the mountains. However, the black-covered chick-a-dee, our most visible winter bird, has the most astonishing abilities in this method of food storage. The little girl, with a brain weighing less than a gram (about 0.02 ounce), was able to remember thousands of hiding places where she stored food for the winter.
One particularly unique method of food storage is the beaver. Like many mammals, beavers will consume as much aquatic vegetation as possible in late summer and fall, adding a thick coat of fur and a nice layer of fat to keep them warm and provide extra reserves for winter. But when the lilies and lotus leaves in the ponds fade in late autumn, the beavers will begin to collect their winter heaps from the ground. An beaver will roam the shoreline in search of its favorite shrubs and trees with tender branches. When it found a preferred candidate, it would cut it with its sharp teeth and drag it back to its nest where it would attach branch ends to the mud at the bottom of the pool to hold it in place. If he couldn’t find enough small shrubs, he would chop down the whole tree, then cut off the trunk and add it to his kitchen. In the deep winter, when hungry, the beaver swims out of its nest through its secret underwater entrance to enjoy food from its kitchen.
As you walk around in the fall, you may come across some signs of preparation for this winter. For example, when you are near a body of water, look for gnawed tree stumps and worn paths leading to a lake where beavers drag trees into the water and go to their lodgings. And watch for crumpled oak leaves where deer, bears and turkeys are looking for grain. Even if you don’t see a single animal, you can find signs that they’ve been there, getting ready for the season to come.
Scott Powell lives in Meredith, visiting the forests and waters of the White Lakes and Mountains Region. He is the Commissioner of Conservation for the city of Meredith, the board of directors of the Lake Wicwas Association, and a member of the Land Stewardship Committee of the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. He writes a weekly journal about nature in the Lakeside Region https://wicwaslake.blogspot.com/ You can reach him at [email protected].