by Marjorie Rachlin
Winter is coming. Leaves pile up in the gutters, the days are getting shorter. We’ve just had our first frost. Human residents have turned on the furnace, but what about the furry, feathered, slithery and six-legged creatures that call our backyards home?
Many of our songbirds have gone south already – but where are the chipmunks, the bees, butterflies, and the other summer residents?
You may be surprised to learn that they plan to overwinter right here in Forest Hills – in a tree, your compost heap, your basement.
They have various ways to survive the cold and the shortage of food – all aimed at one goal – living to emerge in the spring, reproduce and carry on the species.
Crickets, for example, need a warm place – sometimes lately I hear one chirping under the washtubs in the basement. This is the time of year when white-footed mice are also looking for new digs – a hole under leaf litter or the window well of our house.
Squirrels snug up together in tree holes, usually leaving those airy, leafy nests we see in the summer. They don’t hibernate – we will see them digging in the snow for acorns all winter. In January, they will start chasing each other around the branches in the mating dance, and the young will be born six weeks later.
Time for a good sleep
Chipmunks, on the other hand, withdraw to their underground tunnels.
They go dormant: their temperature goes down and their heart rate slows. Every two or three weeks, they wake up, have a meal, then go back to “sleep.” We don’t see much of them, because they have stored acorns and other edibles in their underground rooms.
The box turtles, the ones that spend most of their life in the woods, have already dug themselves several feet into the ground to hibernate. There are a number of them in Rock Creek Park, and probably a few over here in Forest Hills.
Where are the bees?
Right now, I am seeing only one or two bumblebees in the garden, because most of colony has died. The bumblebee queen is the only member of the colony that will live over the winter. In October she mated (and got a package of sperm), then burrowed under the ground or in leaf litter. She will come out in early spring, lay eggs and start a new colony.
Most of the honeybees have withdrawn to their nests for the winter. I don’t know of any man-managed hives in Forest Hills; most of our honeybees must be living in holes in trees or walls. When the temperature drops below 50 degrees, honey bees don’t fly, and so they are living on the honey they have stored.
In the nest, they cluster together around the queen. By a kind of vibration and “shivering,” they keep the nest warm – 81 degrees to 93 degrees. Amazing!
A few butterflies migrate to warmer spots — we are all familiar with the long trek of the monarchs, but several other common butterflies like the red admiral also go south, and their offspring return here in the spring.
Yesterday, when the temperature went up to 70 degrees. I saw a question mark, a species whose adult winters over in a leaf pile.
In that leaf pile – or nearby compost heap – you might also find a woolly bear caterpillar. This caterpillar freezes solid if it gets really cold, but develops in the spring into an Isabella Tiger Moth.
If you look carefully, you can usually find a butterfly cocoon on a stem in your bushes. Many of our common butterflies, like the yellow swallowtail, overwinter that way.
Cocoons are magical. I will never forget my kindergarten classroom, where, all winter long, we watched a glass jar with a brown cocoon in it.
One day in May the cocoon began to shake, and a huge cecropia moth slowly emerged. That’s a marvel that a five-year-old remembers forever.
Home in the backyard
Many of our other small denizens – toads, fireflies, beetles, millipedes – also hole up in our yards. Compost heaps are a favorite spot, but others like a niche in a stone wall , a rotting log, the soft dirt under the shrubbery, or a pile of old firewood.
In fact, the “green guys,” the ecologists, are urging us city dwellers to leave some untidy spots in our yards where animals can overwinter or birds shelter from storms. Don’t rake all the leaves out of the bushes. A pile of dead plants and brush sits in one corner of my garden. A heap of rocks, holes in trees, old logs in a corner, a warm compost pile – the bees, the crickets, the butterflies, will thank you.