Smokies Wildlife in Winter Wilderness - by Sharon Hurst

  Painting - "Weathering the Storm" - Terri Waters

     By late autumn the creatures of the Great Smokies sense the changes in the air, the unrelenting chill that has settled into the folds of the mountains. In the months past, they have readied themselves for winter - fur grown long and thick, a sheltering den sought among the trees or rocks, perhaps even a cache of acorns and nuts "squirrelled" away. Unlike northern animals, however, the pelage (fur) of the Smokies wildlife does not turn white in winter as a snow camouflage (except the Smoky Shrew, which becomes gray). Perhaps this is because the Smokies winter is shorter, in reference to duration of snow.

     A few creatures of the Smokies hibernate through the harsh winter of the highlands; eerie bats (except for the red and silver-haired varieties) spend the winter in a sleep-like state. Among the scarce true hibernators are the jumping mice, seldom-seen scurriers who live in underground dens. For comfort and insulation from damp and cold, the mice line their den (in which they may stay up to six months) with dry autumn leaves. 

     Other animals as well pass in winter in relative comfort. The black bear searches out a den in late autumn; a deep crevice in a rock-face, a hollow log, or a pile of fallen trees. Once settled in, he falls into a deep sleep, though not in a true hibernation because his metabolism stays at normal level. Occasionally the bear gets up to take an outdoor stroll, but soon returns to the den. Bear cubs are born every other year while the mother is still in the den, in the dead cold hush of winter. They emerge, half-grown, in April.

     But other animals do not fare so well. Most remain active even in the deepest days of winter. A winter hiker may come across a solitary fox stalking his hapless victim, perhaps a rabbit or chipmunk wandering from its shelter. Some animals enter a short period of sleep during extremely cold days. Among them the fat woodchuck, the striped skunk, and the flying squirrel. Both red and gray squirrels find a haven in lower altitudes where weather is not so harsh. Crow and raven fly down to the more sheltered valleys. White-tailed deer band together at the forest's edge, as much for protection from predators as for social instinct.

     Survival is difficult for the birds who winter in the high Smokies. Grasses and seeds are blanketed by many feet of snow and birds must forage from a limited berry supply to survive. The berries are sought by many include scarlet sumac, holly, and spruce berries, pale mistletoe, and the few dogwood berries that cling to barren limbs. Winter is the season to become an indoor birdwatcher, particularly if you decide to make feeding stations in your snow-covered lawn. It's perhaps one of the easiest and most humane ways to help the winter creatures, since they do stand the chance of possible starvation. Birds are not choosy about what they eat. Sunflower seeds and peanuts are savored, bread crumbs, boiled eggs and potatoes (diced into tiny pieces), oatmeal, rice, raisins, even crumbled dog biscuits!

~ Sharon Hurst