Where the Wild Things Are - Part 2

Not all animals spend their winters south or hidden away in a den. Instead they brave the cold winter months. We all know winter in Prince Edward Island can be harsh; snowy, cold and windy making survival very difficult. In this module the children will learn about winter survival techniques living things use including adaptations, thermal regulation, hunting, shelters and protection from the cold and predators. As well they will learn about human survival skills. Games and activities will be completed that teach about winter survival skills; acquiring food, adaptations and shelters.

Lesson 1 - Mice, Voles and Shrews

There are three species of mice, three species of voles and two species of shrew native to P.E.I. Read below to see how each of these small mammals spend the winter:

Deer Mouse

Named for their two toned fur that resembles the summer coat of a white-tailed deer, deer mice are reddish-brown with a white belly. They have 7 to 10 cm long body, long ears and a long (5 - 13cm) bicoloured tail. This is the most widely distributed mouse species in North America. Deer mice are mainly active at night. They dwell along the edge of  urban environments throughout woodlands or grassy areas. This cute little mouse will feed on seeds, fruits, mushrooms, and the eggs and larva of insects. They are good climber and will eat tree buds of elms and maples. Deer mice remains active over the winter, snacking on stored seeds. They are preyed on by snakes, squirrels, skunks, raccoons and coyotes. Deer mice are carriers of the Hanta Virus, which can be dangerous to humans. 

Woodland Jumping Mouse 

Woodland jumping mice use their strong feet and 20cm tail  to up to 3m. They have bright gold fur with streaks of black on the sides and a white underside. The average body length of a woodland jumping mouse is 5cm to 15cm with a 2.5cm to 20cm tail. This mouse species does hibernate during the winter, with roughly one third of the population surviving. They usually re-emerge in April. Woodland jumping mouse live is forested areas, as the name implies, in nests or burrows. They are omnivores, eating both plants and insects and crepuscular, being most active a dusk and dawn.

Meadow Jumping Mouse

Meadow jumping mice are similar to woodland jumping mice, with strong feet and tail for jumping. On average their bodies measure 9cm. They are tricoloured; Their head and back have a broad olive brown band, their sides are yellowish streaked with black and underneath they are white. Meadow jumping mice hibernate. They feed on seeds, berries and insects. These mice can be found in boreal and eastern hardwood forests.

Meadow Vole

Meadow voles, or field mice, are usually 15 cm in length with a 4 cm tail. They have long loose fur that is reddish brown, darker on the back, lighter on sides and grey underneath. These voles are preyed on by mammals, birds, snakes, large frogs and fish making them important links on the food chain. They are many herbivorous but will eat insects and snails. They have a short life span of one month due to predation and starvation. Meadow voles remain active throughout the winter and will eat bark when food sources become scarce. They create extensive runways or vole highways to help navigate the fields or meadows they inhabit; these are quite evident after the snow melts. 

Red-backed Vole

The red-backed vole body measures up to 13 cm. It  has a bright chestnut brown back with grey feet and underside. They have large ears and a short bi-coloured tail measuring 4cm. Red-backed voles are considered good climbers and are most active at night. They are often alone during the summer and will congregate in to family groups during the winter. These voles remain active all year round. They nest under the snow and do not store much food for the winter. Red-backed voles prefer coniferous woods where a water source is nearby.


Although one may assume from the name, muskrats are not rats. Instead they are members of the vole family, named for the "musky" odour they release to mark their territory. These semi-aquatic mammals can weigh between 900g and 1800g. They vary in shades of brown. Muskrats have flat tails and feet with fringes of stiff hair, both characteristics that help them swim. These large rodents can be found along marshy edges of streams and ponds, but prefer large shallow cattail marshes. They build dome-shaped houses that are built mainly from aquatic plants. Muskrats are largely herbivorous but will eat mussels, frogs, crayfish and fish. They remain active all year round and follow trails in swamps and ponds even when under ice.

Water Shrew

Water shrews are large, measuring 14cm to 16cm in length. They have a long tail (6cm - 7cm) that is 40% their body length. They have soft, dark fur, a pointed snout, tiny eyes, concealed ears and 5 slightly webbed toes on each foot. Water shrews are insectivores, and will feed on slugs, earthworms, spiders, leaches and snails. They are prey for mink. These small mammals do no hibernate and use their water courses even when under ice.

Short-tailed Shrew

Short-tailed shrews are smaller than water shrews, measuring 10cm to 13cm. They have short, slate gray fur. As with the water shrew, short-tailed shrews have long pointed noses and small eyes and ears. These small mammals are the only mammals in P.E.I. that have a venom gland. This venom gland releases a neurotoxin that immobilizes or kills small prey, such as frogs, mice and salamanders. Short-tailed shrews will also feed on birds, bird eggs, insects, roots, berries, nuts, fruit and fungi. When winter arrives short-tailed shrew do not hibernate, but they do store food. These little molelike mammals have to continuously eat to survive. They cannot go more than three hours without food or they will starve. Short-tailed shrews prefer areas with dense vegetation with a thick layer of leaf litter. In the winter they will dig tunnels through the snow.

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Lesson 2 - Hunting for Food

Once winter arrives finding a source of food becomes much more difficult. Foxes and coyotes are two mammals that do not hibernate during the winter. They are actively searching for food. With layers of snow beneath their feet, these predators have a hard time finding prey and if they do, sneaking up on them is almost impossible as the crunch of the snow gives them away. For this lesson playing a game is a good way to emphasize how difficult survival can be in the winter.

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Lesson 3 - Hunting Season

The beginning of the fall season, is a sign that hunting season is about to start in Prince Edward Island. Migratory bird hunting season kicks-off on the first Monday in October and goes till the second Saturday of December. The Canada Goose is a common migratory birds seeked by hunters. Coyotes and Snowshoe Hare, as well as Foxes, are common mammals hunted for their fur. Coyote and Snowshoe Hare hunting season opens on the first Monday of October and runs till the end of February. Fox hunting season is between the first of November and the end of January. 

Hunting is a common past-time for many Islanders. It is an important sources of income and helps control animal populations. Overhunting can cause problems and put strain on a species, if hunters follow the rules and guidelines put in place this should not be an issue.

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Lesson 4 - Adaptations for Survival

For animals that do not migrate or hibernate they are forced to adapt to the seasonal changes. When winter come animals must adapt to the cold and lack of food. Below is a list of different means animals use to survive the winter:


  • fluff out their feathers to have a larger area of warm air around their bodies
  • eat more; as food is metabolize body heat is generated
  • eat seeds of coniferous tree
    • high in fat and oil content
    • available year around
  • will feed on dead animals 
  • lower body temperature so less heat is lost
  • roost in groups to conserve heat
  • have Preen Gland release oil
    • keeps feathers flexible and waterproof
    • inhibits growth of fungi and bacteria
  • shiver to generate heat
  • Ruffed Grouse - "snow roost" during periods of extreme cold
    • snow offers protection
    • rest under the snow till extreme weather passes


  • body appendages of mammals tend to get smaller in Northern mammal populations
    • ‚Äčheat conservation
    • Snowshoe Hare - shorter ears than Cottontail Rabbit
    • mammalian legs and snouts are shorter
  • occupy collective dens to conserve body heat; even ones they aren't usually colonial
  • fur becomes thicker
  • muskrats and beavers construct shelters
  • many burrow
  • seals grow thick layers of insulating fat and have specialized fur

Fish, reptiles and amphibians

  • produce chemicals within and between cell walls that can lower their freezing temperature

Bergmann's Rule 

  • states that Northern (where the climate colder) species of particular genus or similar class of birds or mammals tend to be larger
    • larger animals have better heat retention
  • P.E.I. example: the Eastern Coyote weighs around 16kg - 18kg, its southern relative, Mearns Coyote, weighs 7kg - 11kg.

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Lesson 5 - Human Survival Skills

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