Winter Wildlife Wonders

Winter wildlife includes super sliding river otters! Slow-burn sleepy black bears! Busybody bugs with scuba tanks! The eerie calls of screech owls! Monster-sized pine cones! Winter may feel like a cold, lifeless season, but the truth is nature never stops being active and unique. Here are some amazing, little-known curiosities of the winter wonderland.


| December 2007/January 2008



River otters are the undisputed masters of no-holds-barred snow sliding.

River otters are the undisputed masters of no-holds-barred snow sliding.


Photo by Istockphoto/Chris Kryzanek

Prehistoric pine cones, daredevil otters and sleepy bears are only a few winter wildlife that are part of the season’s natural wonders.

OK, it’s true that December and its solstice signal colder temperatures, a barer landscape and harsher weather. But look at it this way instead: The air is crisp and bracing. Leafless trees reveal wildlife and scenic vistas hidden during warmer seasons. And with snow falling or blanketing the landscape, it’s a wonderland out there. In fact, there are stories to discover all around you, in every bur, bud, bug and burrow. Here’s a sampler of items to help you better enjoy nature’s wintry ways. 

River Otters: Super Sliders

It’s not just people that head for the nearest slippery slope when snow falls. Polar bears congregate on favorite hills to slide down on their backs, then get up and do it again — and again. Ravens, too, are back-sliders, and for reasons unknown to mere humans, they like to hold sticks in their beaks as they zoom downhill.

But river otters are the undisputed masters of snow-sliding, and particularly of no-holds-barred, all-out belly flopping. After getting a good running start, an otter flings itself onto its smooth stomach, folds its legs back alongside its sleek body, and rockets downhill using its foot-long tail as a rudder, chattering or barking excitedly to its companions. At the bottom of the slope, the animal does exactly what you and I do . . . it treks back up for another go.

An otter family will spend hours thus, apparently for no reason other than the fun of it. But otters also slide as a means of practical locomotion across flat territory. On land, like other long-bodied members of the weasel family, the short-legged river otter has an awkward, arch-backed, bounding gait — picture an enormous whiskered inchworm. To save energy and move faster across snow, the otter uses a jump-slide-jump-slide technique, first taking a couple of bounding steps, then coasting on its belly for as much as 20 feet, then taking a few jumping steps again, and so on. An otter’s dot-dot-daaaaaash, dot-dot-daaaaash tracks in snow are unmistakable.

Of course, river otters are most at home in water, where their terrestrial gangliness liquefies into grace and speed. An otter cleaves through water like a pliant kayak, its streamlined body slithering effortlessly, its thick muscular tail providing propulsion, its webbed feet acting as rudders and swim fins. Otters are the fastest land mammal in the water. They eat clams, frogs, turtles, snails, ducklings and almost any other catchable, edible organism. But their favorite fare is fish. Supremely maneuverable, armed with hooklike teeth, and equipped with eyes designed for underwater vision and whiskers that detect the slightest aquatic movements, an otter is a lethal predator. Usually, it can catch its daily 3 to 4 pounds of food in short order.





dairy goat

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Aug. 5-6, 2017
Albany, Ore.

Discover a dazzling array of workshops and lectures designed to get you further down the path to independence and self-reliance.

LEARN MORE