Where the Wild Things Are - Part 1

When the days begin to get shorter, temperature starts to drop and harsh winter weather is imminent the number of wildlife sightings are not so frequent. Many birds and insects have headed south for the winter, while various mammals are hidden away in burrows till spring. In this module the students will learn about hibernation and migration. They will learn about various organisms that hibernate and several species of birds and insects that migrate, where they go and why. The students will play games that will help them develop an understanding of hibernation and migration.

Lesson 1 - Introduction to Hibernation and Migration

Once the winter season arrives hibernation and migration has already begun. Birds and insects are en route to warmer regions. Mammals, reptiles and amphibians are tucked away from the cold. Briefly introduce the concepts of migration and hibernation. Follow-up the lesson with a game.

Migration

Migration of birds refers to the regular seasonal journey a flocks takes in response to change in weather, food availability and habitat. In P.E.I., some birds leave the province for a warmer southern destination, while birds from more northern areas arrive in P.E.I. for the winter. For example, the Canada Goose leaves P.E.I. and heads to Southern United States for the winter, while the Greater Scaup leaves Alaska and the Canadian Territories and heads to southern parts of Canada and into the United States.

Although bird migration is most commonly discussed, they are not the only animals that migrate. In fact, several species of insects will migrate during seasonal change. The Monarch Butterfly travels incredible distances to escape cold weather and find food. 

Hibernation

For animals that move on foot, long distance migration is something they cannot participate in, therefore they are given the option of hibernating or adapting. Hibernation is when an animal remain in a deep sleep for the duration of the winter. Not all hibernating animals are true hibernators, instead they enter torpor, where they wake up to feed on stored food. In P.E.I., majority of the hibernating mammals are not true hibernators. Reptiles and amphibians, cold-blooded animals, have no way to keep warm during the winter. Majority will burrow into the ground and hope the freezing temperatures don't reach them.

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Lesson 2 - Migration of the Canada Goose

Canada Geese are quite a common sight on Prince Edward Island. They can be seen wading along the shores of a river, roosting in a cut field or flying overhead. They are grayish in colour with a long black neck and black head with white cheek. These noisy birds make a distinct  and well known "honk" sound, but communicate with up to 13 different calls. Canada Geese spend up to 12 hours a day eating, they feed on grass, roots, leaves and other plant materials. In early fall, these migratory birds eat even more to build fat reserves to survive the flight south.

The beginning of fall migration is marked when soil and water start to freeze. The flock flies in a "V" formation which allows them to move faster and communicate easier. Migration take the Canada Geese to warmer southern areas of the United States and some go as far as Mexico for food and warmer temperature. Flocks have been recorded flying over 1000km in one day. That is flying the whole length of P.E.I. four times, something that would take 16 hours in a car. Some flocks complete their whole trip to their wintering area in one day. 

During late winter the flocks begin to migrate back to their breeding grounds. This trip can take a couple weeks since the geese will stop to feed, as they build reserves for the rest of the trip and reproduction. Once they arrive at their destination breeding season begins....which will be discussed in the spring modules.

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Lesson 3 - Migration of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly are fascinating insects that migrate south when temperature changes. Monarch butterflies begin their lives in P.E.I. during the summer as tiny caterpillars hatched from an egg. They feed on milkweed and grow 2000 times the size. The larva or caterpillar will attach itself to a twig or leaf and form a hard outer shell called a chrysalis; this is the pupa stage. During the 8-15 days in the chrysalis the caterpillar goes through metamorphosis and emerges as an adult butterfly.

Once the fall season arrives these fully grown butterfly will travel to the southern United Stated and into Mexico. Some have been tracked traveling over 6500km, fly 80km to 130km a day. The Butterflies will stop to feed on nectar from flowers along the ways. Migration can cause huge losses in population some butterflies suffer from illness or infection, encounter bad weather or are preyed on by birds during hibernation. After two months of migration, Monarch Butterflies arrive to their destination in early November. They will hibernate for the winter in colonies. 

During late February the butterflies awake and mate. Unlike birds, migration for a Monarch Butterfly is not a round trip. Monarch Butterflies have a short life span of 7 to 8 month; they die after mating. Their offspring will migrate back to P.E.I., arriving in the same breeding area their grandparents did the year before. 

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Lesson 4 - Hibernation of a Skunk

The Striped Skunk is a common sight or smell in Prince Edward Island during the summer. When winter comes these stinky little mammals a rarely seen, that is because they enter torpor. Torpor is a form of hibernation, where animals go into a dormant, semi-active stage. They will sleep for the winter, but wake to feed. During torpor skunks are tucked away in underground dens; they plug the opening to keep the heat in. Throughout the winter they will emerge on warm days for a snack and at least once, release their scent glands. So it is not uncommon to smell skunk during the winter.

Raccoons and chipmunks are example of two other mammals that enter torpor.

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Lesson 5 - Hibernation of a Little Brown Bat

The Little Brown Bat is one of the most common bats in Canada and is native to P.E.I. Bats are mammals, just like us, they are warm-blooded, have fur and give birth to live young. Bats tend to have a poor reputation and creep most people out; they are just mice with wings, smaller eyes, larger ears and a larger mouth full of teeth....okay, that probably didn't help. They are insectivores, so they do help control the insect population, which is always a good thing! 

The Little Brown Bat can weigh up to 14kg and measure 17cm long.  They are brown with gray underneath and bluish-gray wings. When in flight these bats can reach speeds of 35 km/h. Like most bats, Little Brown Bats are nocturnal or active at night. They live in woods, caves, farm fields and will roost in houses. In P.E.I., it is not uncommon to see bats in the attic of a house or loft of a barn.

Little Brown Bats are active during the spring, summer and fall. During the fall they build up fat to survive hibernation. Before hibernating, bats will mate, but the female does not become pregnant till the spring, when ovulation and fertilization occurs. Young are born in June or July. Hibernating bats have to select their hibernation roost based on temperature. If the temperature goes below freezing the bats will not survive, if the temperature is too warm the fat reserves will burn off too quick and the bat will starve to death. 

White-nose Syndrome is a fungal disease that is causing major problems for bat populations in the United States. During hibernation this fungus grows on the noses, ears and wings of bats. Infected bats run out of fat reserves and starve. Little information is known about where P.E.I. bats spend the winter. It is possible that they travel to nearby provinces, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. According to this article, as of April,  White-nose Syndrome had not reached P.E.I. but it has been reported in New Brunswick. Infected bats have a 10% chance of survival, indicating this disease can have a great impact on the Little Brown Bat population in P.E.I. if it spreads. 

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