Black bears give birth while hibernating

Imagine going to sleep and waking up months later, with three new babies that you gave birth to with no memory of the big event. This is part of the black bear’s mating cycle every year. The bears mate in late summer, but the cubs don’t begin growing until the female bear, called a “sow,” enters her den to hibernate. Some time between mid-January and mid-February, she gives birth to 2 to 3 cubs without fully waking from hibernation. She and the cubs stay in the den together until springtime.

So, while winter does her thing, mom and cubs are safe and warm in their winter hibernacula!

Photo credit: For Fox Sake Rescue

Do raccoons hibernate during winter?

Raccoons right now are going through many changes to prepare for winter. Rather than being strictly norcturnal, they’re becoming more active at dawn and dusk, and are developing a strong instinct to forage on high-fat foods and seek shelters. All these changes prepare them “Diet Hibernation” during the coldest months, known scientifically as torpor.

Torpor differs from true hibernation. Animals in true hibernation sleep for weeks or months at a time and don’t need to eat or drink. Bears can even give birth during hibernation, barely waking up in the process!

While raccoons in the coldest parts of their range may sleep for several days at a time during torpor, they never experience the dramatically slowed metabolism that true hibernators experience. During torpor, some raccoons come out during the warmest part of the day to forage for food. Torpor serves the same purpose as hiberation: it enables animals to make it through the lean months with little food.

If you’re one who can relate to a raccoon’s desire to spend the winter sleeping and coming out only to eat “comfort food,” that’s because humans have a torpor instinct just like our wild neighbors. We tend to sleep more and gain weight during the winter, and many experts believe that torpor instinct is a major contributor to seasonal depression. These coming months are hard for most wild creatures, and we’re no exception!

If you see raccoons foraging in the daytime and they appear otherwise healthy, there’s no need to panic and assume they have rabies. They’re just adjusting their habits with the seasons, as nature intended!

Winter is nature’s time to rest

Cold weather has arrived in central Virginia. The air is frigid, the ground is frozen, the trees are bare, and stillness abounds. As the snow falls and winds swirl through the mountain passes, the landscape might seem void of activity. But all is not what it seems: while Mother Nature appears to be sleeping, she is quietly preparing for the coming of spring.

With the onset of winter, the hard coats of the plant seeds are softened by frost and weathering action through a process called “stratification.” Stratification triggers the seed’s embryo, its growth, and subsequent expansion until it eventually breaks through the softened seed coat in its search for sun and nutrients.

Tulip Poplar, also known as Yellow Poplar, depends on winter’s freezing and thawing to ensure germination. The fruit cones, pointing upwards on the branches, remain on the tree in various stages of dilapidation throughout much of the winter. Eventually, they will fall to the ground, where the seeds inside the cones will lay dormant until spring warms the earth.

Tulip Poplar seed cones

Tulip Poplar seed cones

Most wildflower seeds depend on this process including Nodding Wild Onion, Milkweed, New England Aster, Shooting Star, Coneflower, Penstemon, Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Dock, Rattlesnake Master, Gentian, Prairie Smoke, and Goldenrod.

Goldenrod requires its seeds to chill for four months before germination.

Goldenrod requires its seeds to chill for four months before germination.

Like wildflowers and other plants, many animals survive winter by lowering their metabolism. Semi-hibernators like chipmunks, raccoons, and skunks go into a state called torpor where body temperature and heart beat does down. Unlike true hibernators, they wake up during warmer periods to go out in search of food.

Hibernators, on the other hand, can exist in a state of deep sleep for several months to escape the cold and scarcity of food. With body temperatures so low their metabolisms are almost at a standstill, they get through the long months of winter by conserving body energy. Groundhogs dig special burrows in a wooded or brushy area below the frost line where temperatures remain well above freezing.

Photo from

Photo from

Groundhogs, one of Virginia’s only true hibernators, will emerge from their burrows in March or April, having lost as much as half their body weight.

While it’s true that winter can seem void of life and activity, I have come to appreciate the quietness of the season. Just as Mother Earth unwinds, gathering resources and energy before her burst of creative rebirth in the spring, we, too, need this time of turning inward, to contemplate and just be. For me, winter is a time to slow down, reflect, and appreciate the miracle that is Nature.

Every winter,
When the great sun has turned his face away,
The earth goes down into a vale of grief,
And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,
Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay –
Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses.
~Charles Kingsley

bear tracks at our front door

Black bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This morning Bill and I went for a walk down our lane. Even though it’s not exactly what you’d call a big adventure, the dogs enjoy these walks and taking in the smells of the deer, racoon, opossum, and all the other critters that roam the woods and fields under the cloak of darkness.

Somehow we missed seeing them on our way out, but on our return, we noticed paw prints in the mud…big paw prints. As we got closer, we could tell the tracks were those of a black bear. February in Virginia has been unseasonably warm, so the bears have come out of hibernation and are searching for food. Naturally, I didn’t have my camera with me so I couldn’t take a picture of the paw prints, and now they’re covered with snow. Arghh!

To see something different in nature, take the same path you took yesterday. — John Muir