Animals in Winter

Animals in Winter

Winter is coming, and while humans have the option of adding layers of clothing or cranking up the boiler, animals in winter have to rely on their biology or resources to stay warm in the wild. Here are some of the ways our furry friends survive the cold.

Snuggling Up

What’s better than one body covered in layers of warm feathers? Try hundreds of them, standing flipper-to-flipper and moving in unison. Emperor penguins know that huddles are not just for football—they’re also a really good way to share the warmth. The wave of moving tuxedo-clad birds has been compared to a traffic jam, with the slightest movement by one penguin causing a ripple throughout the crowd. Research has also shown that the penguins are not crammed together, but instead stand barely touching so that no penguin’s feathers get compressed.

Birds closer to home like to snuggle up too. Rooks, ravens and wrens are all known to roost together to keep warm in Winter.

Taking a Holiday

Some birds, like the Alpine swift, head for warmer climates in the winter. A study found that the swifts are able to stay in the air for six months at a time without touching the ground, subsisting on aerial plankton—a mix of small insects, bacteria, and spores found in the air—and forgoing sleep. By the time the birds return to their starting location, they have six months to rest and refuel before they start their journey again.

Other birds, including cuckoos and ospreys migrate, and surprisingly, so do other animals, including some species of moths, and basking sharks. Many birds also migrate to the UK at this time of year to escape the harshness of an arctic winter. This includes swans, geese, ducks and wading birds.

Shaking and shimmying

Like many warm-blooded mammals, when we go outside in winter and we get too cold, our bodies start to shiver. When you feel cold, tiny sensors in your skin send messages to your brain telling it that you need to warm up. Your brain sends messages to nerves all over your body telling your muscles to tighten and loosen really fast, which is what we call shivering. It does this because when muscles move, they generate heat.

Some animals shiver to stay warm just like we do. And it’s not only the warm-blooded ones. Bees also shiver by vibrating their muscles and keeping their wings still.

Taking a snooze

A number of UK animals hibernate in winter, including hedgehogs, bats and dormice, as well as some species of butterfly, bees and ladybirds. When an animal hibernates, its temperature drops, and its breathing and heart rate slow right down so it’s not using up very much energy. Hibernators don’t sleep for the whole winter; they wake up every now and then to look for food and go to the toilet.

Frogs, toads and newts are also dormant in the winter; however, they don’t really hibernate. These cold-blooded creatures have special anti-freeze in their blood that allows them to freeze without dying. So, a frog frozen at the bottom of a pond can spring back into life once warmer weather arrives. This is called brumation.


Squirrels are famous for creating stockpiles of food to keep them going through the cold winter months when the food supply is less readily available. While squirrels can use visual cues and their memories to find their food stores, they generally rely on their sense of smell. Since squirrels are opportunistic, they won’t hesitate to steal from another’s stores. If nobody uncovers the hidden food, it stays there; buried and forgotten seeds may even grow into new plants and trees.

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