Wildlife have several strategies to endure Lake Tahoe’s winters

Living in harmony with Lake Tahoe’s bears is simple enough, so long as you’re smart and aware of what to do — and what not to do. Photo: Tahoe Magazine
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2014-15 edition of Tahoe Magazine. It was first published on this website in August 2018 and is presented in its original form.

With its longer nights, colder temperatures and snowstorms, winter in the Sierra Nevada can be tough to endure.

This is especially true for local wildlife.

“There are a bunch of different considerations that animals that live here have to contend with in the winter that we don’t, and we’re lucky for it,” said Will Richardson, co-founder and co-executive director of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science.

In a region where the average annual snowfall is about 430 inches, wildlife can have difficulty moving around and finding food, he said. Low temperatures, scarcity of food and storms paired with high winds don’t help.

At Tahoe, wildlife have three main ways of coping with winter: migration, hibernation or endurance, Richardson said.

Migration

While migration is a popular method — particularly among birds — it is costly, as it requires a lot of energy. Additionally, it’s dangerous, since it entails crossing through unknown habitats where animals migrating may have trouble finding food and shelter — or encountering new predators.

A red-shouldered hawk sits perched in a tree during a previous winter in Loyalton. Photo: Will Richardson / Tahoe Institute for Natural Science

Migration, however, isn’t always a long-distance journey. For example, Truckee deer will go to Verdi or Loyalton, Richardson said. Mountain quail, a ground-dwelling bird, will walk to Reno or Auburn.

“We have a lot of species here that only migrate as far as they have to,” said Richardson, who earned his doctorate in ecology, evolution and conservation biology from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he studied bird communities in Sierra Nevada aspen habitats. “They really try to stick around as long as they can, and as long as they can meet their energetic demands, find food and don’t get beat up too much by the weather.”

Examples are the song sparrow and the robin, which will go under snow during storms for shelter and insulation from low temperatures. Yet if the area gets a couple big storms, they’ll leave and go down to Reno, Carson Valley or Auburn for the remainder of winter.

Hibernation

Other wildlife such as bears will remain in the area, but will hibernate to get through the winter.

A Northern pygmy-owl is seen in Glenshire during a previous winter. Photo: Will Richardson / Tahoe Institute for Natural Science

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy to be saved if you can just chill out for awhile,” Richardson said. “Literally drop your body temperature, not trying to fight that too much, not trying to keep your metabolism going.”

As for how long bears will hibernate, that depends on where they live, the amount of food available in the fall and gender, he said. When hibernating, black bears generally don’t eat, drink or relieve themselves. Instead, they live off weight they gained prior to winter.

Chipmunks also hibernate, but they will wake up occasionally throughout the winter to eat some previously stored food and relieve themselves.

Snakes, meanwhile, hibernate in groups to keep warm.

Endurance

Wildlife such as voles remain active throughout the winter by staying underneath snow where there are plants and greater protection for low temperatures and predators, Richardson said.

A mountain chickadee is shown hanging out on an icicle in Glenshire during a previous winter. Mountain chickadees are territorial during breeding season, but will join mixed-species flocks in winter, which provides the benefit of finding food. Photo: Will Richardson / Tahoe Institute for Natural Science

Other techniques employed by wildlife to survive the winter include teamwork and camouflaging their bodies by changing the color of their coats or feathers to white.

“Winter is when you really just have to try to shut down any thought of reproduction or growth and endure until the sun comes around next spring,” Richardson said.

To learn more about the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science, visit tinsweb.org.

Margaret Moran is a former reporter with the Sierra Sun and former contributor to Tahoe Magazine.
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