MDC: Some wildlife hibernate, while others need a helping hand as they den up for winter

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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. – The first official day of winter is Dec. 21 and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) says some wildlife may need a little bit of a helping hand as they try to stay warm through the freezing temperatures. Wildlife across Missouri have varying ways of overcoming the challenges winter presents. Kevin Brunke, a MDC natural history biologist, says there are several ways people can help winter wildlife, as not all of them can simply hibernate.

“Bears are what everyone thinks of when we hear the word hibernate, but they’re not actually a truly hibernating animal,” he said. “Groundhogs are true hibernators, sleeping much more soundly than a bear.”

Bears are known for fattening themselves up before the winter cold sets in. When they sleep, their heart rate drops, but their body temperature doesn’t go down much. This is probably because black bear females are usually pregnant while they’re sleeping through the winter, and the babies growing inside them need warmth. Bears can even nurse in their winter dens and occasionally emerge from their dens and seek out a snack on a warm winter day.

“Then we have our amphibians and reptiles, many of which go into torpor,” Brunke said.

Torpor is a dormant state where creatures lower their metabolism, body temperatures, and heart rate to reserve their energy for more favorable conditions. Turtles will bury themselves in soft ground, snakes may tangle up with other snakes to stay warm, and some frogs will dig into the mud at the bottom of a pond.

“We don’t see a lot of activity from smaller mammals through the winter, either, although they’re not hibernating, they’ve simply found a warm place to hide away and stay warm, mostly napping through the coldest days,” Brunke said.

Chipmunks, skunks, raccoons and opossums can take naps that last weeks, but when the weather warms, they’ll emerge to look for food. A warm winter day is a good time to look for tracks, scat or chew marks.

“People often ask what happens to our insects in the winter, or they might assume they simply die off, but that’s not the case,” he said. “Many insects have ways they adapt to the cold, such as refining sugars into an antifreeze-like substance that helps them survive the cold.”

Brunke said Missouri’s true hibernators are groundhogs, Franklin’s ground squirrels, meadow jumping mice and some bat species. True hibernation means the animals sleep deeply all season long and conserve their body’s energy by lowering their bodily temperature and reducing their heartbeat from the normal 160 beats per minute to about four beats per minute.

“If you want to help wildlife that aren’t hibernators, think about providing cover with brush piles for small wildlife like birds, rabbits and squirrels or adding a bird feeder for periods of freezing temps, ice and snow,” Brunke said.

Dormant plants and leaf litter are also helpful habitat for insects and small animals.

“If you can stand leaving the leaves on the yard and not raking them away, even something as small as that act can help wintering wildlife,” he said. “If you can remember to change out the water so it doesn’t freeze, providing a fresh water source is helpful as well.”

For information on watching and helping wildlife through the winter season, go online to