Male hairy woodpecker on snow-covered branch

Winter Wonders

What does wildlife think of winter?

I don’t picture wildlife muttering silently about insufferable snow and icy wind. Instinct and biology play key roles in keeping creatures warm and fed. But animals are intelligent, too. Do they think about the seasonal discomfort?

That’s what I’m wondering as I sit by my fireplace, snug in my home and shielded from the cold and snow.

So, do animals think and have feelings? Much has been written about that, but the source I’ll highlight (book link at the end of this post) is a wonderful book by Nancy Castaldo. Called Beastly Brains, it’s about how animals think, talk, and feel. Castaldo wrote the book for kids around ten to twelve years old, but I think it’s a fascinating read for all ages. It explains not just what scientists know about animal intelligence, but how they found out. Details of studies and experiments are fascinating.

So, do our outdoor neighbors contemplate the weather? Castaldo doesn’t address that specifically, but here’s an interesting excerpt from the book:

Through research we know that monkeys steal. Crows recognize faces and use tools. Dolphins have a complex vocabulary. Rats demonstrate compassion. Dogs feel jealousy. And a hive full of honeybees makes decisions the same way we do via the neurons in our brains.

Whoa… theft, compassion, jealousy? It’s hard not to imagine that animals have opinions about nasty winter weather.

Here’s a montage of various creatures working through winter. Some scenes puzzled me as I filmed.

At first, I thought the bluejay was struggling, somehow caught in deep snow. Moments later, I realized it was searching for food. The jay ultimately flew off with an acorn.

I still wonder how the woodpecker knew where to pound for food. Many insects survive winter by various means, mostly immobile. So there’s no sound of chewing or movement from within. Woodpeckers also tap to discover hollows in a tree, which might house over-wintering insects in torpor. But this branch was thin and unlikely to have an interior void that would reverberate. Yet I saw him yank something larva-like from the hole he chiseled.

The last mystery is the coyote. I don’t know how it hurt its leg. The animal limped around for days, and I wondered if the injury impaired or complicated its ability to hunt.

Winter doesn’t seem easy for any of these creatures.

Do they resent the harsh conditions?

I wonder.


To learn about animals’ winter-survival biology, read Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World–the ingenuity of animal survival. The book is a deep dive into physiology, habitat, and instinct. It’s also well written and a pleasure to read.

Here’s a link to the book I mentioned above: Beastly Brains-Exploring how animals think, talk, and feel, by Nancy F. Castaldo. It’s terrific non-fiction for anyone curious about the animal mind. Castaldo shares the history of scientific inquiry into animal intelligence and how our understanding has evolved. The book includes detailed suggestions for how kids can conduct their own animal studies, whether working with pets or observing wildlife.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

11 thoughts on “Winter Wonders”

  1. One thing’s certain: the winter conditions don’t allow much time to wallow in the emotion of self-pity. Even that limping coyote can’t sit out a week in a recliner while his leg heals. So I wonder, without a spa, or even a mug of hot chocolate, how do they comfort themselves when the weather exasperates them?

    1. Bonnie, I imagine physical comfort–finding warmth, shelter, food–is the best consolation they’ll find. Think what friendship does as a comforting resource for humans. Aside from primates, I wonder if there’s any chance that something akin to friendship operates in the animal world?

      1. I know that feral cats in their colonies can have very close bonds, so at least in some animals, something akin to friendship exists.

        1. Beth, I didn’t know that about feral cats. We have so, so many around us. The thought they form social bonds is comforting. Thank you for that insight.

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