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September 30, 2014

Watching Wildlife in Fall

See how your wild neighbors gear up this fall
for the winter ahead

  • A chipmunk's cheeks come in very handy when hauling groceries home for winter storage. iStockphoto.com

  • Flying in a “V” formation helps Canada geese keep tabs on each other and conserves their energy. iStockphoto.com

  • Keep a lookout when driving and be extra cautious of deer on the move. iStockphoto

  • Eagles use thermals—currents of warm air—to help them soar. iStockphoto.com

  • Squirrels stow cold-weather provisions in many places. iStockphoto.com

  • This sunset sky is peppered with a flock of American robins, who sometimes migrate under the cloak of darkness. Tom Pawlesh

  • Monarchs that make the roundtrip migration from the U.S. to Mexico live up to 9 months. iStockphoto.com

  • In the fall, American toads check out the local real estate in search of winter homes. iStockphoto.com

Like spring, fall is a season of dramatic changes and intense activity for wildlife, which makes it an exciting time to watch what's going on in your backyard wildlife sanctuary or nearby parks.

While you are finding yourself loaded up with tasks for work or school, wild animals are having equally busy days (and nights) gathering food, heading south and doing all the other things that make it possible for them to survive the colder seasons. Take a few moments each day to check out what they're doing.

Sights and sounds of the season

Birds and butterflies

If you keep your eyes peeled, you may find a few unusual visitors in your yard when migrating birds and butterflies stop briefly to rest and refuel. Or maybe you'll be just as happy to welcome the return of familiar winter birds seeking a safe home for the cold months ahead.

  • Raptors—a group that includes hawks, eagles and falcons—begin migrating with the cool northwesterly winds of August. Until early December, you can spot them riding winds along mountain ridges, lakeshores and coastlines, or gliding upon warm currents of air that rise from valleys.
  • Canada geese head south in ribbon-like "vees." When you hear their honking, step outside to enjoy a moment of their journey.
  • You can follow bird migrations with your ears, too. As they stream southward, find a quiet area and you'll hear their many flight calls.
  • Monarch, buckeye and painted lady butterflies begin heading south, flying low in southerly winds, but high in northerly winds, which enable them to travel up to 60 miles per day. Each night they roost in huge numbers on trees along the way. 

Learn how to turn your outdoor space into a safe place for wildlife »

Mammals

It's all about food and shelter for your furrier neighbors.

  • Chipmunks gather food in their expandable cheeks and make countless trips stocking special chambers in their burrows for the upcoming winter—which they’ll spend alternately sleeping and eating, only venturing out on warm, sunny days.
  • Squirrels establish winter nests and gather thousands of acorns. White oak acorns quickly germinate if buried, so squirrels either eat them as they go or remove the germ/embryo from the acorn before burying it. Red oak acorns, which won’t germinate until spring, are just buried.
  • Woodchucks either seek or dig a special winter burrow in or near woods, which are somewhat warmer than open fields. Adults hunker down in their leaf- and pine needle-lined sleeping chambers in late September or early October, while the young continue to fatten up for another few weeks.
  • Beavers inspect their dams and repair any damages and reinforce their lodges. They must cut, haul, and “plant” tree branches on the muddy pond floor to be sure of fresh food when the pond freezes over.

Frogs and toads

You might want to be careful where you step when you take a walk among the autumn leaves.

  • Wood frogs, gray tree frogs, spring peepers and chorus frogs bury themselves under wet, matted leaves in fall. Later, when temperatures drop, ice will form in the spaces between cells in their body cavity and their hearts and breathing stop temporarily. Spring’s warmth will enable them to become active again.
  • American toads in cold areas of the United States start to hibernate in late fall. Digging with their hind feet, they create a hole to back down inside for the winter.

How to help wildlife in fall

  • Give Wildlife a Brake! Animals are extra busy in fall, so watch for them on roads.
  • Build a brush pile to provide safe cover and leave some fallen leaves in the corners and edges of your yard for overwintering insects.
  • Plant native evergreen trees to provide cover, shelter, and food for birds.
  • Add roosting boxes or line nestboxes with pine needles to provide roosting places.
  • Provide a birdbath and birdfeeders and keep them clean and filled.
  • Ask building managers to turn off lights in tall buildings during peak migration—lights can disorient birds migrating at night, and can result in deadly collisions.

Make the most of your wildlife watching

  • Keep your binoculars handy and take them on walks.
  • Record backyard arrivals and departures in a calendar or journal or on index cards (one for each species) to look for patterns and shifts.
  • Start a sketchbook for the creatures and natural objects you observe.
  • Photograph wildlife you see and other signs of the season.
  • Help monitor wildlife through a citizen science program (see resource list).
  • Check our fun fall to-do list.

A final word

Fall is a season of sensory splendor. Watching wild animals will connect you with the energy and excitement with which they prepare for great journeys, deep slumbers, and winter’s challenges. What better way to make your own transition into the winter ahead?

Create a Humane Backyard

A place that offers food, shelter, water, refuge from toxic sprays, and safety from mowers—it’s what every creature wants, right? They want a Humane Backyard. By making simple changes, you can create that haven of comfort and security for local wildlife. And you can do it anywhere: in the city, suburbs, or country. So look around--at your backyard, balcony, or the park down the street—then let us teach you how to make your own Humane Backyard. Once you’ve learned how, take our Humane Backyard pledge.

Resources

» All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s guide to identifying birds.
» ebird: Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society sponsor this online checklist program for reporting and tracking bird sightings.
» Project FeederWatch: Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science project for monitoring birds at feeders through the winter months.
» Journey North: A global study of wildlife migration (both north and south), and seasonal change, featuring science education and activities, photos, maps, and more.
» Monarch Watch: Schoolyards, and parks. Learn all about the biology and conservation of Monarch butterflies.
» University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web: Natural history, photos, range maps, and other cool facts about birds, insects, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and more.

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