Ecology

The Garden: A Winter Pantry for Animals

In places where winter is particularly harsh, there aren’t a ton of solutions to survive.

There are three of them:

  1. Migrate to a warmer country. Honestly, if I had wings, I would go to Florida for the winter too! The beach, Disney, the dream! However, migration isn’t accessible to everyone; imagine a frog crossing the continent!
  2. Sleeping all winter long. The beach is nice, but hibernation is amazing! Imagine stuffing yourself all fall, going to bed for a few months, and then waking up just in time to enjoy spring—with your wasp-like figure back! But then again, some animals couldn’t survive it…
  3. Coping! Yes, stay active in winter and feed on your reserves, like the blue jays, or continue to hunt, like the great horned owl, or fast like a deer… I regret to inform you that we, humans, are in this category: we must put on boots and hats and brave the snow, cold, and dark to survive!

In this article, I want to talk to you about the larder that your garden represents for creatures active during the winter. You have probably already seen tracks in the snow, or birds flying by your house: it isn’t a coincidence.

cardinal
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Photo: Harvey Reed.

Reserves

Small mammals are particularly good at stockpiling! Mice, for example, will gather seeds, nuts, fruits, or anything else they find in the fall in their burrows.

I often see them going through my compost for interesting leftovers. While gardening, you’ll probably see small holes, about the diameter of your thumb, which is often the door to their home.

The entrance to the burrow can be found near roots or, even better, a south-facing wall, as this is a good way to have a source of heat in the winter. Also, since garbage cans, compost, flower beds, and other delights are not too far away, it’s easier to stock up during the summer. Useful in the summer and nice in the winter!

mouse
House mouse (Mus musculus). Photo: caterpillar511.

Hunting

Carnivores that can survive the cold, and whose prey is accessible in the winter, change their lifestyle somewhat, but basically continue to do what they do in the summer.

Of course, it’s cold, so they have to eat enough to generate enough heat to keep warm. When you think about it quickly, it seems like there are very few of these predators, but in fact, they are just often nocturnal, and that’s why you see very little of them! I think of owls, which feed on mammals; shrews, which find hibernating insects in the ground; or foxes, which hunt small mammals under the snow.

To hunt like this, animals often have superpowers! Ears that can hear the footsteps of mice under the snow, or a keen sense of smell that can find food even when it’s buried in the frozen ground. A shrew may be digging in your garden, where insects have made a cocoon for the winter, and suddenly a snowy owl dives from the sky and sinks its talons into the snow to capture it! Who knew your flowerbeds were so alive in winter!

shrew
Northern short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Photo: jeremyismydog.

Fasting

Many animals (especially large ones) hardly eat during the winter. This is the case for white-tailed deer or coyotes. Of course, if in early spring you have a cedar with beautiful tender shoots, or an apple tree with buds on low branches, it’s quite possible that deer will stop by to nibble.

It’s the same thing for the coyote. Opportunistic, it will feed on dead animal carcasses, or spilled garbage, but it doesn’t eat much during the winter.

In Your Garden

Keep your eyes open, even in the cold, there is a lot going on in nature, and your garden is a feast for some animals. I love walking around my house with my snowshoes in the winter and looking for footprints, droppings, or food scraps. It even helps you understand your land better and identify which species live there! Does an animal make holes in your garden every year in summer? It may be easier to see its tracks in winter to identify whether it is a shrew or a mouse.

Observation is the gardener’s first tool, and it doesn’t stop in fall; it’s all year long!

Bird
Photo: Egor Kamelev.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

3 comments on “The Garden: A Winter Pantry for Animals

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  2. So true. Our snow covered landscape looks like a super highway with all the tracks yet we rarely see any living creature other than the birds.

  3. Christine Lemieux

    Really interesting read. Thank you!

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