Sub zero temperatures saw fat, fluffy squirrels hastily undertaking morning chores as the dog cut his own walk a bit short, shivering at a trotting pace, but Mr. Greenbeans and Al, Tree House managed feral cats snuggled close together basking in January’s sunlight. Suffering through Chicago’s first true cold spell of the season has left many wondering how animals manage to survive through frigid winter months. The truth is that most animals have adaptations and coping skills that help them survive or evade winter weather.
Not all, but many birds migrate to warmer climes during autumn to escape winter weather, the arctic tern famously migrates 12,000 miles each year. The Monarch butterfly migrates west at the close of each summer, overwintering in California and in the mountains of Mexico, roosting in colonies so large that there sheer numbers often snap branches.
For some animals movement to slightly less elevated or more protected grounds within their habitat is enough to preserve them through winter months. White tailed deer for example seek out shallow ground and denser woods where they enjoy a reprieve from whipping winds.
For many species that remain during the winter season, there are a host of biological adaptations deemed torpidity or dormancy designed to reduce metabolism, thereby decreasing need to eat and venture out. Hibernation is a significant reduction in metabolic activity rendering the animal very difficult to rouse. Bears are not considered true hibernators in that they easily awaken, have been observed venturing from dens to seek food and females give birth over winter which requires considerable metabolic activity. Chipmunks and ground squirrels are examples of true hibernators in that they spend the winter in almost complete metabolic dormancy.
Much wildlife simply tough it out over the long winter months like raccoons, coyotes, many birds, rodents, and cats both stray as well as feral. Al and Mr. Greenbeans can attest that feral cats can live long, healthy and what appear to be happy lives outside, but when weather conditions turn extreme outdoor cats benefit from winterizing measures.
Alley Cat Allies, an organization that advocates for feral and stray cats is offering some useful winter weather tips on their website www.alleycat.org that are certain to protect your managed feral cat colony through a long Chicago winter.
A shelter is recommended to keep cats warm and dry, specifically one insulated and lined in straw instead of blankets or hay because it repel moisture and resist infestation. Simple premade shelters can be purchased at Tree House for a minimal donation or easily construct one using plans found online.
A simple feeding station separate from shelter is advised to keep food dry and cats protected from rain and wind while feeding. Instructions for building a feeding station can be found online at Alley Cat Alleys colony care guide.
Feeding and watering feral cat colonies over winter can pose a challenge, but can be overcome with a little forethought and preparation. When possible heated water bowls are advised, but if not possible change water frequently to avoid freezing and use deep bowls placed in direct sunlight. More metabolic energy is required to maintain homeostasis in cold weather so wet food which is high in protein and requires less energy to digest is beneficial, but wet food can freeze quickly posing challenges. It is recommended to feed wet food at a regular schedule so that cats are waiting to eat it before it freezes.
Additionally it is recommended to check automobile before driving because cats as well as other urban animals often crawl into engines or tire wells to keep warm. Antifreeze is a toxin and should be kept out of reach of animals. Salt used as de-icing agent can be harmful to cats and other wildlife. Snow is not something we have had to be too concerned about this winter in Chicago, but it is advised to be mindful and shovel paths around feeding stations, shelters to allow cats access in and out. Finally, cats often mate in winter so if continuing trap-neuter-return during winter months take precaution measures to make sure cats are not exposed and left too vulnerable to freezing temperatures.
What seems like harsh reality to many companions of doted upon housecats is simply just a fact of life for feral cats as well as other wildlife that do not migrate or hibernate over winter. With a little help from their caretakers feral cats can safely survive even the coldest months and from the looks of Al and Mr. Greenbeans, have some fun too.
posted by Gwen M.