Winter Heat Messes Up Animal Sleepers

Many winter animal sleepers are rubbing their eyes and waking up to the summer-like temperatures.

This winter's massive El Nino hasn't just created havoc for California surfers or East coast ski bums, Nature too is being thrown out of whack and many winter animal sleepers are rubbing their eyes and waking up to the summer-like temperatures.

Raccoons, and possums and skunks – usually dormant during cold weather – are stirring and looking for food, according to Ken Elowe, assistant regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass. "For them, it's how much energy do they have to go around hunting for food. In this kind of weather when it's warmer, it's not hard for them to find something to eat."

Hibernating bears will likely wake up, sniff around a bit and probably go back to sleep, Elowe said. That's because their food supply isn't available.

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"Bears are triggered to go into their dens when food gets scarce and they expend more energy looking for food than the energy it gives them," he said Bears actually change their physiological processes during their winter sleep so they are breaking down the fat in their body, not the muscle. That gives them sugar and water to sustain themselves.

"They don't have to drink anything," Elowe said. Nor do they urinate.

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The biologist noted that bears in northern and southern climes both hibernate, although bears in Florida and the Carolinas don't sleep as long.

Woodhcucks and chipmunks bury themselves below the frost level in burrows. They slow down their metabolism to just barely keep them alive. They don't change their physiology. They have to get up and drink water and urinate during the normal winter.

"This kind of winter makes it easier for them to do that," Elowe said.

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Bats need to remain undisturbed in caves, dead trees or old buildings or else they can use up winter food and energy stores they have built up over the summer and fall months. Even though many insects may be hatching in the warm temperatures, it's not a good idea for bats to roust themselves and start hunting.

One positive is that the warm spell might cut down on the tick population, which needs protection of snow on top of leaf letter and soil to molt into their next stage, or instar.

"They are similar to seeds that need a frozen period to become germination ready," Elowe said.

As to why we're having this warm weather and how long it will last? First, blame El Nino. Second, a pressure system that has forced the jet stream south over the West (bringing in cold Arctic air), and a ridge in the East (bringing tropical air from Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico), according to Rich Otto, meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

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In fact, most of the entire Eastern half of North America, from the Great Plains and Mississippi River northeast to Quebec down to Virginia and the Carolinas will be experiencing record or near-record highs on Thursday, Christmas Eve.

Washington, DC, is expected to reach 75 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, breaking a previous high of 69 in 1933. New York City will hit 72 degrees; Boston will reach 69.

"Currently, the warm air is across everywhere east of the Mississippi up to Maine," he said.

Otto says the NWS forecasts show no change for the next two weeks, which is the limit of their prediction models.

"We are stuck in this pattern," he said.

As for the animals, Elowe believes that most will adapt to the warmth, knowing that cold weather has likely been delayed by a few weeks rather than permanently on vacation.

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