Science Research, Academy of Mt St Ursula


Nature's Events - January

by Drew Panko


So it is cold and dark and snowy.  All the flowers are long gone and most plants are dormant.  Does that mean nothing is happening in Nature?


Herbaceous plants:  All are dead, their life as individuals are over.  The species live on only in their seeds.  And many animals are out searching out and gobbling down as many of these nutritious goodies as they can find.


Perennial plants:  If they are deciduous, they have shed their leaves.  The struggle now is to survive long periods without liquid water, and to avoid being broken by the weight of frozen ice and snow.  Short days and long nights will keep most dormant until spring.


Cold-blooded Animals:  Cold-blooded animals have it easy in winter.  Like most perennial plants they go dormant.  Many find over wintering sites below the frost line and hibernate.  Some find hiding places and freeze solid.  Plants get rid of most of their water and so do not have a problem with freezing.  Some frogs are known to produce an anti-freeze compound to prevent cell moisture from freezing and ripping their cells apart as the water expands on freezing.  Many of these will be ready to break dormancy at the first warm spells in spring.  Some cold-blooded animals are even active on warm days in mid winter……Who?   Take a guess: a snake, a frog, a turtle, or maybe an insect?  (two correct answers!)

Warm-blooded Animals:
  Most have a much harder job.  They have to stay warm and well fed in the middle of winter.  Examples:  Deer and coyotes.  Some enter semi-dormant states during the coldest weather, but are out and about if conditions are moderate.  Examples:  Squirrels, foxes, raccoons, skunks.  Females of most of these species are pregnant already and most will give birth and nurse in winter dens.  A very few enter deep hibernation - only black bears and bats in our area.  They too will develop embryos and give birth and nurse in winter quarters.  Living on stored fat is one thing.  But enormous changes in physiology are required to store or eliminate wastes as they do not urinate or defecate for months!


Birds (really warm-blooded animals, but who's counting?):  Some migrate south for the cold months, but some migrate south - to our latitudes - to take advantage of our warm (burrrr) winters.  Some (Humming birds, Nightjars) wintering in areas south of us go dormant during the coldest periods.  Many species - our year round residents - change their habits and food sources and do fine all winter.  Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Goldfinches and Tufted Titmice fall into this category.  They often form mixed flocks and forge in together in small groups.


Ducks are weird.  Many (Blacks, Gadwall, and Mallards) engage in courtship as they arrive on wintering grounds in fall and form pairs that last all winter.  Males can be seen chasing females and each other most of the winter.  They will follow the females to the breeding grounds and abandon them as soon as eggs are laid.  Other ducks postpone courtship to later in the winter.  Buffleheads should be courting seriously and pairing up by the end of the month.  Other species such as Canvasbacks, Scaup, and Common Mergansers form huge flocks and do not form pairs until they get to the breeding grounds.

For the larger raptors however, winter is the start of breeding season!  Great Horned Owls (GHOW) are the first.  They get very vocal, calling throughout their territories, to advertise their presence and to warn other GHOWs away.  Courtship and mating are in full swing in our area in January, and many females will be on eggs by the end of the month.  They must get an early start.  Their young take a long time to mature (4 months) and the GHOW strategy is to time their hatching so that in the spring, when prey are most available, the young are at the peak of their growing period and the height of their food requirements.


Red-tailed Hawks are the commonest resident hawk in our area, and their winter strategy is somewhat more complex.  They often abandon their breeding areas when there is persistent deep snow.  In recent years, however, this has not happened, and they have been spending their January's engaged in territorial defense and courtship.  If you are observant (and lucky) you will occasionally find a pair of red-tails sitting side by side on the same branch.  This is a sure sign of courtship and a mated pair.  GHOWs will do this as well, but they are much harder to find at night.  In all species of raptors the males defend and define the breeding territory at the beginning of the breeding season.  Females choose their mates on the basis of the quality of the territory.  They defend the territory only against other females.  It is not unusual for the females to abandon breeding territories in periods of bad weather, but the males hang on longer.  In species that migrate, males always migrate earlier, and set up territories. 
Females migrate later and more leisurely, and select their mates on the basis of territorial quality. 


Just south of us, in NJ, Bald Eagles have divided up their habitat into territories, completed courtship rituals, and are busily building nests.


February will be even busier, so stay tuned!


Science Research Nature's Events - February