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The Recorder - SLOW DOWN

Published: 3/9/2020 7:00:16 AM

The days are starting to get noticeably longer and warmer. In less than two weeks, we will reach that magical moment when the amount of daylight is equal to the amount of darkness and, from then on, the warmth of the sun will really start to dominate. Machines designed to deal with snow will be put away for the season and machines designed to deal with grass will take their places.

Soon, humans will be outside once again.

We are unique among the animals in the sense that we can engineer our environments in such a way that we can avoid winter by establishing little pockets of summer wherever we desire. We have running freshwater, we have a seemingly endless supply of food and we can control the temperature of our little habitat bubbles to any level that we desire. We don’t control the weather, but we can avoid it in many regards.

No other species can do these things. When faced with the reality of winter, they must make a choice and the nature of their bodies is what will make that choice for them. Frogs, toads, snakes and turtles must find a place to hide. They must rely on their slow, cold-blooded metabolisms to shut down to almost nothing and simply need a safe place to do it.

Some frogs and turtles bury themselves in the mud at the bottom of lakes and ponds and do not move, eat, or even breathe for months on end. Other frogs, turtles and snakes must find a similar solution to this problem on land, where the temperatures can dip much lower. They will still not move or eat for months, but they must also find a way not to freeze solid.

In the world of “higher” vertebrates, there are different obstacles. Birds cannot shut themselves down, but they can fly. So, some avoid winter by migrating south where they can continue to experience warmer weather and the supply of live insects they depend on for food. Other species have learned to shift their diets to include berries, nuts, seeds and insect eggs, which can be found across the northern landscape. They remain much further north and endure whatever winter weather is thrown at them.

Mammals cannot fly and are (for the most part) unable to traverse the distances required to follow the warm weather south. They also face a choice: fatten up and attempt to survive the winter by scrounging for whatever food may be found, or fatten up and attempt to survive the winter by sleeping right through it. Species like deer, coyotes, foxes, rabbits and squirrels do the scrounging, while species like chipmunks, bears and groundhogs do the sleeping.

Eventually, as the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, the sleepers will begin to wake up. Anyone who regularly drives a car will already have noticed the heartbreaking fact that our roads are once again littered with the broken bodies of mammals that stumbled out into the path of our cars.

Imagine that you just woke up. You were so tired that you hit the snooze button a couple of times, but eventually, you had to get out of bed because were so hungry. Bleary-eyed and still a bit “out of it,” you stumble to the kitchen to see what might be for breakfast. Perhaps a cup of coffee and a plate of pancakes might be nice. With an optimistic bounce in your step, you pick up your pace and … BAM!! Your life has come to an end.

Many a little creature in the road found a way to survive months of deprivation and hardship. Each one was a winner in the attempt to sleep through the worst of it and was out looking for a solution to the last of it when its life ended. I haven’t seen any chipmunks in the road yet, but every day I see another raccoon, opossum or skunk.

So, I present you with a photo of one of the most adorable little creatures that I have ever crossed paths with: a baby skunk that had been rescued from the road where its mother had lost her life. This charming little fellow was as sweet, friendly and engaging as a puppy. The pose in this particular photo is what really gets me, however. That fat little belly and the paws resting on gloved hands at its side make the little skunk look like a character from “The Wind in the Willows,” sitting in a wingback chair by the warmth of a fire; a notion that is both preposterous and delightfully whimsical.

Every animal that is killed in the road will not be able to have babies this year. Birds are not the only animals that have experienced population declines. We must all to our best to protect everyone from harm. I leave you with this request: slow down. Take your foot off the gas pedal just a little bit and keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians. Any animals that have managed to survive this far deserve a chance to continue on. Give them that chance.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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