Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Nature’s Valentine’s Day: Wildlife Reproduction

birds and beesMid-February weather is often quite harsh in the Adirondacks. However the eventual arrival of spring in another month, or two, causes numerous forms of wildlife to begin preparations for the inevitable change in seasons.

Despite frigid temperatures, blustery winds, deep snow, and limited sources of food, numerous creatures begin to focus a portion of their time and energy towards activities associated with breeding, rather then concentrating solely on the challenges of survival.

All creatures of the wild have evolved a reproductive schedule that allows birth to occur at a time of year when environmental conditions are optimal for the survival of their babies. For many mammals, like the red fox, coyote, skunk, and beaver, the onset of the mating season centers around the weeks prior to and immediately following Valentine’s Day. While this may seem to place an undue hardship on these creatures, it is nature’s way to ensure that only the strongest and most resourceful individuals are left to breed and perpetuate their genetic lines. Additionally, with a mating season toward the final month of winter, young are typically born at a favorable time in spring when they have the entire growing season to develop and mature into animals old enough to deal with the challenges of winter.

Wild dogs have a gestation period of roughly two months, which results in their pups being born in mid-April. Because the pups remain in the confines of their parents’ den for nearly 4 weeks after birth, these young, soon-to-be predators initially emerge from the safety of this natal retreat in mid May, just as the foliage is emerging from buds on trees and shrubs and the bugs are appearing everywhere. (The development of leaves in the canopy and throughout the understory greatly reduces visibility in our woodlands, which helps conceal the presence of small, slow-moving babies from aerial predators and ground dwelling animals with an appetite for meat, like a bear, bobcat or fisher that can easily kill a small pup. Also, the rapidly expanding bug population greatly increases the availability of prey to parents in need of many meals of protein.)

As their breeding season approaches, both the red fox and coyote seek our the member of the opposite sex that shares the territory with them. This is done, in part, by the release of certain chemicals in their urine. Not only are these fragrances used to track down a breeding partner, but key substances emitted by the female stimulate the return of the male’s reproductive system to an active state. Unlike a domestic male dog, a male wild dog, like a coyote, fox, or wolf, is physically incapable of mating with a female at any time of the year, except their breeding season. After successfully mating, virtually all wild creature’s reproductive systems become dormant. This allows an animal to channel all of its energy into rearing its young and ensuring its own survival following the birth of the annual litter.

Many larger mammals also use their voice to call attention to their presence, which helps the two residents of a territory find one another. Although howling is used by the coyote for much of the year to remain in contact with other individuals, the voice of any canid during this season is especially important in helping to reunite it with its breeding partner. With light from a nearly full moon reflecting off a covering of fluffy snow on trees, boulders, stumps and the ground, there is usually enough natural illumination hours after sunset to travel into the woods and experience the sounds of the latter part of winter at night, which often includes the barking cries of a red fox, or the yelping howls of a coyote attempting to locate its mate.

In another three to four weeks, the raccoon temporarily emerges from its winter dormancy to search for individuals with which to breed. This creature is also joined by the bobcat, gray fox, red and gray squirrels, woodchuck and varying hare, as these creatures also start to seek out members of the opposite sex to engage in a reproductive encounter.

As is the case with the previous animals, by the time their babies are born and develop to a stage when they are ready to exit the safety of their den or nest, the weather has warmed significantly, travel is no longer impacted by snow, and seasonal food sources have developed, which allows the young the best chances of acquiring food needed for development.

This year, Valentine’s Day corresponds with the month’s full moon. While this event may seem especially romantic to individuals that are young-at-heart, it is also a time when various members of our wildlife community turn their attention to activities that will eventually produce the next generation of offspring.


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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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