Winter and Wildlife

It’s cold outside but there’s still plenty of wildlife to see

Although spring and summer is the classic time to think of wildlife, winter too, affords the nature lover many opportunities to see interesting animal behavior, and also to take steps to help our wild neighbors during the cold winter months.

With many of our summer birds leaving the area for the winter, others arrive and spend their winter in the Philadelphia area – this is their South. Dark-eyed Juncos – small, mouse-gray birds with delicate pink beaks – arrive in the Philly area around November every year. Soon you can spot White-throated Sparrows as they arrive and sing their song, which sounds like a perfect rendition of “Oh, Sweet Canada!”

But not all birds migrate, some are year-round residents. Many of our favorite backyard birds stay here all year, like the Northern Cardinal. In fact, the Cardinal’s red color contrasted against the snow is a standard Christmas card image. Other favorites who aren’t going anywhere for the holidays include the Mourning Dove, House Finch, Blue Jay, and several species of woodpecker. Even the Robin, thought of as the first sign of spring, may be seen in large flocks in the area, as they “partially” migrate in large flocks, going where the food is – winter berries are a staple of their diet.

This is also the time of year when resident winter birds switch from “coupledom” for raising young, to forming flocks. There are some interesting flock behaviors to see, even in the city. European Starlings, with their sparkly black plumage, are ubiquitous in Philadelphia. In the winter, they form very large flocks that you can see traveling as a huge group of hundreds or thousands, particularly in the evening when they are going to their roosting place for the night.  A “murmuration” of Starlings will swirl around the sky in the thousands, seeming to be one large, single organism, and it is a breathtaking spectacle. You might be lucky enough to see this phenomenon this winter but, if not, there are many examples on Youtube.

For very small birds, there is strength in numbers. It’s dangerous to be a bird, so in winter, small birds like various sparrows form mixed species flocks and go out foraging together for food, despite their differences the rest of the year.

Although these small birds won’t need your bird house for raising chicks, tiny songbirds are known to huddle in bird houses on cold days for warmth, so keep them up year round to give the birds a respite from the cold. Water is appreciated year-round by birds, and if you feed them, this is the best time of year to do it. It helps them keep the weight on that will both keep them warm and give them strength to endure the hardest part of the year.

Although raptor (bird of prey) migration viewing is a popular fall activity, many birds of prey, like hawks, owls and vultures, stay around for the winter, including our famous Red Tailed Hawks, who nest every year near the Franklin Institute. The lack of leaves on the trees means hawks are more readily seen at this time of year.

For owls, winter is the start of their courtship season – they pair up in winter to be able to start rearing their young in the very early spring. This is the best time of the year to spot a Great Horned Owl, one of the earliest nesting birds of the year. In December, listen for the hooting mating call of the Great Horned, as they choose mates and work on setting up their nest (usually an old nest of another species that they repurpose and recondition). CLICK BELOW TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THE MATING CALL (AND OTHER SOUNDS THESE OWLS MAKE)

Like birds, some mammals are active during the winter and others take a hiatus through migrating or hibernating. In our area, we have both hibernating bats, like the Big Brown Bat, and migrating bats, like the Eastern Red Bat. If you see a bat on the ground or looking distressed at this time of year, a call to a wildlife rehabilitator is in order. Bat numbers are dwindling and every individual matters.

As the weather chills, house mice become bigger pests to homeowners. Please resist the use of poisons – too often, the target mouse, if he doesn’t die an agonizing death, will be an easy catch for a hawk or owl, who will die in a painful way after eating the poisoned rodent. Humane traps are best but, if you need to kill mice, snap traps are the better choice.

Mid November is the start of “rutting” season (when males compete to mate with females) for our White Tailed Deer. Because of these disputes, deer are more likely to appear on roads, resulting in more frequent collisions with cars. Keeping careful watch in high deer areas is advised.

As always, we at Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center are always happy to answer your wildlife question, whatever the time of year.

About PMWC

Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center is a non-profit, wildlife rehabilitation organization serving Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties. They are located at 2815 Township Line Road, Norristown. For more information visit their website at or call 267-416-9453. You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

About Michele Wellard 2 Articles
Michele is an Assistant Director at the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center.

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