Winter Animal Survival: How Do They Do It?

By Deborah Locke, DNR Information Officer





A second program at Fort Snelling State Park in February helped answer a question I’ve had for a long time. How do animals in the wild survive extremely cold winter months?

The answer from the park’s crack naturalist, Kao Thao, was a little surprising. First, not all animals make it, whether they remain in Minnesota, migrate to a distant place, or hibernate. That surprised me. But the good news is this: most animals do survive, due to centuries of adaption.

So, on a sunny, warm winter morning, seven of us set off from the park visitor center to learn more about wildlife that overcome the elements. I knew about migration and hibernation. What I didn’t know is that when or if the temperatures dip below zero with wind, raccoons and rabbits, for example, will hibernate for a couple of days. They will wake hungry, but alive.

Bears can sleep weeks at a time, but they awake in mid-winter and move around at the same or a new location, Kao said. As we walked down the trail toward a channel of the Minnesota River, we learned that rabbits neither migrate nor hibernate and remain active through the winter, surviving on the bark of very small tree shoots. They favored the Hackberry branches we saw with missing bark, ignoring the buckthorn bark. Chipmunks dig deep holes and hibernate. If one is dug up, it looks dead, Kao said.

Predators like owls, fox and coyotes usually spend more time hunting in the winter months, Kao said. They have acute hearing, and if perched on a tall tree, can hear a mouse under the snow. They wait for the mouse to emerge or plunge downward into the snow and grasp it with their claws.

We walked and listened to Kao, arriving at a beaver lodge on a tributary of the Minnesota River. The beaver had collected tree branches in a small pile; the lodge itself was submerged in the water. They remain active through the winter months and eat a layer of the branch located just below the bark.

The program length was just right: not too long and not too short. We learned something new about survival instincts while getting exercise and fresh air. 

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