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Watching Wildlife in Winter

You may be surprised by the flurry of activity right outside your window

The Humane Society of the United States

  • No matter how frightful the weather, chickadees stay busy looking for food. John Harrison

  • tufted titmice

    Known to store food, this titmouse may have had his meal stashed in the tree stump. iStockphoto

  • downy woodpecker

    Although they may be year-round residents, downy woodpeckers are especially noticeable in winter. John Harrison

  • white-throated sparrow

    When not perched in a tree, you’ll see white-throated sparrows kicking up the snow and soil in search of food. iStockphoto

  • eastern chipmunk

    Even snow won’t stop the eastern chipmunk from foraging for food on warmer winter days. iStockphoto

  • The nest of a gray squirrel is called a "drey." Janet Snyder/The HSUS

  • Blue jays are one of nature’s built-in alarm systems. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

Winter is a perfect example of the adage “less is more.” Leaves have fallen and there’s less ground vegetation which means more chances to see wildlife. 

The quiet and calm of winter make animals’ activities and daily patterns more apparent.

Birds are silhouetted on bare branches, and rabbits make longer dashes between places of safe cover.

And, as natural food and water become scarce, more birds visit feeders and baths.

Who’s out there, and what are they doing?

  • Chickadees stay active no matter how cold it gets, feeding constantly throughout the day and burning off half of the calories each night to keep warm. 
  • Titmice look for acorns, beech mast, peanuts, and seeds that they earlier stored under loose bark, in cracks on branches, or in the ground.
  • Downy woodpeckers roost in tree cavities, which they excavate and line with wood chips. 
  • Song sparrows do not feed in flocks, so they tend to feed near shrubs or a brush pile that offer quick cover. 
  • White-throated sparrows nearly double in number at feeders in the coldest months. The highest-ranking bird of the flock sings most and tends to get first and longest access to food and closest access to cover. 
  • Juncos are seen at more feeding sites than are any other species. The top bird always feeds in the center of a patch of food. 
  • American goldfinches roost in conifers or in cavities within snow. They sometimes flock with chickadees and sparrows. 
  • Chipmunks spend part of the winter curled up in their burrows in a state of torpor, but they also wake often to eat. Though their food stores limit the number of times they must trek outside for food, they still forage on warmer winter days.
  • Gray squirrels make watertight winter nests, using up to 26 layers of flattened, dried, green oak leaves and lining the cavity with shredded inner bark from dead trees. In winter, they retrieve the acorns, nuts, and maple seeds that they buried in fall and feed on tree buds and bark as backup foods.
  • Blue jays provide an early warning of danger for many other species. When you hear a blue jay give an alarm call--usually signaling that a hawk is nearby--look quickly to catch a glimpse of other wildlife flying or scurrying for cover. Or, you may get to see a very grumpy-looking hawk, whose feeding opportunity has just been dashed by the blue jay's good deed!

If you want to see more… listen

Your eyes only see a little more than half of the circle around you, but your ears hear sounds from the whole circle. Bird calls, songs, or the drumming of woodpeckers let you know when and where to look long before you would be able to see the birds making these sounds, and slight rustlings in dried leaves alert you to foraging animals. So, walk softly, and listen carefully as you go!

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.

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