Fall Frenzy

A look at mammals preparing for the winter months.

Fall is a busy time for all organisms in the natural world; mammals in particular, spend their fall preparing for harsh winter weather ahead. These furry animals take various measures to ensure they will survive the long winter months. Some are preparing to spend the winter hidden away in a den while others appearance change, so they are hidden from predators. In this module, the children will be briefly introduced to hibernation, they will learn about various mammals, and hopefully see some, the importance of adaptations and shelters, along with methods organisms use to hunt for or gather food. Various games will be played and activities completed that will help the children develop an understanding of how seasonal changes have an influence in animal behaviour.

Lesson 1 – Food Collection and Squirrels

During the fall months mammals are working hard to prepare for winter. Hibernating mammals spend a majority of the time eating, as their bodies store fat to live off for the winter. During hibernation, they use up the body stores; therefore they do not lose any muscle. In the spring the animal is leaner, but still as strong as they were in the fall. True hibernators, are animals that remain in a deep sleep during the winter months, waking in early spring. In P.E.I., the majority of mammals are not true hibernators, the Little Brown Bat and Jumping mice are. Although, many Island mammals do not hibernate at all they do become less active, while skunks, chipmunks and raccoons enter torpor, where they wake occasionally to feed from a stock of food. In order to survive the winter, these mammals spend their fall fattening up and collecting food to snack on. So for whatever form of hibernation, eating and collecting food in the fall is an important activity. 

American Red Squirrel

The American Red Squirrel is the largest of the three squirrels found in Prince Edward Island. They are known for their long, bushy tails. Their fur is usually darker on their backs when compared to the fur on their belly. Red squirrels can be found in coniferous forests, nesting in tree cavities but are very adaptable and can survive almost anywhere. They are known as seed and nut eaters but will eat insects, fruit, fungi and bird eggs. These squirrels do not hibernate during the winter, but do prepare for snow. They will spend a majority of their time storing food, sometimes storing more than they will eat, as a result they spreading seeds over a wide area. They insulate their nesting cavities with shredded bark to keep warm during the cold months.

Northern Flying Squirrel

Northern Flying Squirrels are the most mysterious of the squirrels in Prince Edward Island, as they are not a common sight. These squirrels are nocturnal, therefore only active at night. They are roughly the same size as red squirrels, with distinct, large, black reflective eyes for night vision. Although, referred to as flying squirrels, these squirrels do not actually fly, instead they glide using their flap of skin on each side. Like the red squirrel, flying squirrels make their home in coniferous forests, usually nesting in abandoned woodpecker cavities, old red squirrel or blue jay nests 1m – 10m above the ground.  During the winter, these squirrels do not hibernate, but do prefer interior nests and store coniferous seeds and mushrooms for survival. In the spring, flying squirrels enjoy the buds of aspen, alder and pussy willow. After bearing young and when the temperatures begin to warm these squirrels will move to exterior nests and eat insects, dead animals and some bird eggs.

Eastern Chipmunk

Often confused with the red squirrel, the Eastern Chipmunk is the smallest of the P.E.I. squirrels, with a tail only a third as long as it body. They are light brown in colour with five black stripes on their backs. Chipmunks live along the edges of woodlands, in burrows, where the land is dry so digging is easy. Near the end of July and into fall these squirrels spend their time fattening up and concentrate on collecting food for winter using their ability to puff out their cheeks to collect large amounts of nuts and seeds. When winter arrives chipmunks enter torpor, a form of hibernation, where they spend a majority of their time sleeping, only waking to snack on items from their food stores. During this time their heartbeat and breathing slows and body temperature drops, therefore less food is required for them to survive. During the summer, chipmunks prefer fruit, eating raspberries, chokecherries and blueberries.

To check out information source or for more squirrel information click here.

Take the participants on a nature walk through the woods or along a trail. Discuss the three Island squirrels, show pictures and keep your eyes peeled for live ones. After the lesson play a fun game. 

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Lesson 2 – Danger of Winter Preparation: Predation

While a majority of Island mammals are busy collecting and storing food for winter survival. Eastern Coyotes, the largest mammal in P.E.I., are hunting for food, just as they do all year long. These mammals are not preparing for hibernation, as they remain active during the winter, but make winter preparation for small mammals difficult. When a small mammal is preparing for winter, they are highly active, making them easy targets for predation. The Eastern Coyote is a top predator and a danger to squirrels and other small mammals. Although Eastern Coyotes are not, or hopefully not, seen in city parks, for the purpose of this lesson, it is necessary to learn about them. Foxes are predators of small mammals, but they will be introduced in a winter module.

Eastern Coyote

The Eastern Coyote is non-native to Prince Edward Island. The first ever sighting of this dog-like mammal occurred in 1983 near Souris. They arrived here from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by crossing the frozen Northumberland Strait. The population of coyotes in P.E.I. increased during the 1980s and 1990s, where it peaked in 2003. Currently the population is stable.  On average an adult coyote weighs 14kg, some males may reach 23kg.   These very adaptable canines will eat almost anything that is available, feeding on various items, such  as mice, voles, shrews, hares, skunks, raccoons, muskrats, grouse, small birds, domestic livestock (usually carrion), poultry, insects, seeds, apples, blueberries and bayberries. They will kill and eat live prey or consume dead animals. Small woodlots with agriculture land nearby are ideal for coyotes.  

To check out source or for more information on the Eastern Coyote click here.

Discuss a bit about the Eastern Coyote and how it stalks it prey. Follow -up the lesson with a fun stalking game.

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Lesson 3 – Survival Adaptations

Adaptation is a process where a population becomes better suited to survive in their habitat. This process occurs over generations. A mammal preparing for winter has certain characteristics that they have acquired through adapting that play crucial roles in their survival. Chipmunks, for example, have cheeks that they can stuff full with nuts allowing them to collect lots of food to store for the winter. Quickness, agility and climbing ability allow red squirrels to escape ground predators. The spray of a skunk deters many predators. Try to think of other adaptations animals have?

An animal’s ability to blend into their surrounding, or camouflage, is an adaptation that allows them to remain hidden from predators.

During the fall snowshoe hares fur goes from grayish-brown to bright winter, a change that take 10 weeks. The Snowshoe Hare and this fascinating adaptation will be discussed next week.

Take the children on a nature walk, introduce them to adaptations and why they are important. Follow up the lesson with a game.

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Lesson 4 – Adaptations of the Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

The Snowshoe Hare can weigh 900 to 2000g (2 -4 lbs). They have large hind feet adapted for traveling in the snow, allowing them to be agile and quick. Their colour change takes place in spring and fall, turning grayish-brown to bright white, respectively. Known for their long ears, snowshoe hares have great hearing and can sense danger with their nose and whiskers. The prefer habitat of snowshoe hares are thick brushy woods and dense alders or open softwood swamps. They are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn. In the summer these vegetarians eat grass and leaves; they feed on bark and twigs in the winter.  Due to disease and predation most live fewer than three years.

After discussing the Snowshoe Hare play a fun game about this furry mammal.

To check out source or for more information click here.

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Lesson 5 - Shelters

During the fall, animals get their winter nests, dens and burrows ready. When animals go into hibernation or torpor their bodies slow down making them easy targets for prey, therefore when preparing shelter animals must build in safe spots. Discuss with the children where what an animal must take into consideration when building, where are the best locations? Play an exciting game that teaches the importance of shelters.

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