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Spring’s New Arrivals

Spring is here, at least I think it is, but judging from how the weather has been, we could be scraping snow off our windshields next week. No doubt the wildlife roaming Pennsylvania woodlands finds the weather patterns a bit erratic as well. Of course, most of our wildlife goes about everyday challenges regardless of weather or seasons, albeit with some modifications or adjustments to their usual routines. We do, however, have a few critters that revert to a more extreme adaptation during the winter months — hibernation.

Actually, very few of our state’s wildlife species revert to hibernation during the winter months, and that’s obvious since we see an assortment of wildlife in our everyday travels. If you aren’t hunting deer in deer season, you certainly have to be on the lookout, especially when you’re driving, or you may end up tagging one with the front bumper.

Last month, I had to stop my truck and allow at least 60 or 70 turkeys to cross the road — some flying and some running.

If you don’t get a glimpse of some animal crossing the road in your everyday travels, you can certainly add a lot to your list by what’s lying dead along the roadways. Deer are high in roadkill numbers, but this winter, in my travels, I have also spotted turkeys, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, and coyotes.

However, a few critters rarely make the winter roadkill list, and the largest one is the black bear.

The idea for this piece came to me when my wife, who works for an insurance agency, said they had their first claim this year for a bear hit by a car. Guess what? They’re coming out of hibernation, and sightings will be on the increase.

Hibernation for bears can vary somewhat depending on the type of winter we have. Pregnant females will enter dens in the fall and hole up all winter, but males often den up later and vacate their den sites more quickly.

Hibernation in bears is actually more like resting compared to the deep torpor characteristic of other true hibernators. During a bear’s “hibernation,” they remain alert, but their body temperature is not drastically reduced. Their respiration and heart rate decline somewhat, and they do not urinate or defecate while in this dormant state.

At the opposite end of the hibernation list, the smallest critter is the chipmunk. They’re so inconspicuous that I hardly notice they’re missing all winter until I see my first one in the spring.

The truth is, the chipmunk is not a true hibernator either since they don’t enter winter with a thick layer of body fat, which is the case with true hibernators. Several studies have found that different percentages of the chipmunks may become torpid to some degree, but a larger percentage of the study has them classified as non-hibernating. Other studies have found that depending on the weather, they may be inactive in their underground chambers for 1-8 days.

The next wild critter that has been vacant from our winter scene is a true hibernator: the woodchuck or groundhog. I actually spotted my first groundhog feeding along a roadway bank a couple of weeks ago during the warm spell. Groundhogs accumulate body fat before heading into their dens, come fall, and they go into a deep sleep or dormant state —their body temperatures drop from over 90 degrees Fahrenheit into the low 40s, and their heartbeats slow from over 100 beats a minute to only four beats a minute.

Yep, the groundhog sighting is a definite sign that spring is on the way. Oh, guess what else is coming out of their underground winter refuges — snakes.