Finding life during winter's cold months

The Nature Call: Some beasts are like zombies this time of year

Tracks in the snow reveal some creatures enjoy the outdoors during the cold winter months. (John Hanson/community contributor)
Tracks in the snow reveal some creatures enjoy the outdoors during the cold winter months. (John Hanson/community contributor)

Editor’s note: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board. 

The last weekend in January was a fitting end to the wild temperature swings throughout the month.

Snow and shocking cold greeted the new year, followed by tongues of warmth. The latter postponed my cross country ski race at the Iowa Games.

The final Saturday was warm, Sunday was cold, and so it goes in the in the Banana Belt of the Midwest.

The dropping temps reminded me of the active hunter’s track I saw a couple of weeks back. The coyote spor coursed a popular trail, abundant with squirrel, rabbit and deer. Predator tracks were an uncommon sight though.

The bush wolf has no offseason. I dare say they relish a fierce winter. Conventional wisdom holds that a hard winter weakens their prey, fortune favoring the persistent. Though I have to believe there is a limit to that logic. I don’t think any creature here is content at minus-20 degrees.

People too are active year-round, or at least we should be. The temptations and ease of a comfy recliner or a warm bed are powerful inducements to make like a bear rather than a wolf.


But what of those beasts who aren’t really hibernating but aren’t active either? There are plenty of critters who truly undergo suspended animation, like a woodchuck or a frog. During the winter they’re out, period.

And then there’s a menagerie of creatures — like raccoons, skunks and the one black bear possibly denned up in Iowa — who seem to parallel all too human tendencies. They go into a seasonal stupor. They are not dead but they don’t have much will to move either.

Zombie was the first analogy that came to mind, couch potato was a close second.

Do those sleepers of convenience feel any glee like so many Iowans when warm winter days stroke their fur? The absence of road-killed corpses during the arctic blast was recalled as the body count piled up during the following warm spell.

I heard two parts joy to one part grousing from my students when the January days warmed. Most found their interest and pleasure in being outside rose greatly. Others complained it was only a cruel joke because once outside their hopes were dashed by the realization March was still a long way off. I think I will encourage those kids to ask their neighborhood skunk for an opinion.

Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.



Editor's note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geosci ...

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