Surviving the Winter, Animal Style

Between the darkness, the cold, and the occasional heaps of snow, winter is hands-down the toughest season in Boston. But the nonhuman animals in our region manage to survive without the benefit of oil heat, electric blankets, or hot cocoa. If you've ever wondered how they do it, check out some of the BPL resources below.

Wide-ranging Winter Ways

To start with, it helps to have a survey of the great variety of methods animals use to survive the winter. For this, you can't go wrong with these titles:

Winter World

There's truly no better book to get a sense of the huge range of ways that animals survive the winter. From mammals and birds to reptiles, amphibians, and insects, famed naturalist Bernd Heinrich explores the fascinating and sometimes bizarre ways that animals of the northeast make it through this season. In addition to the paper copies, this is also available as an eBook through Overdrive.


This DVD of the PBS program makes a global survey of the exemplars of cold-weather survival, from the penguins down south to the bison of the US, all the way up to the Arctic foxes of the far north. 

Birds in Winter

This nicely illustrated work focuses on birds, demonstrating the great variety of ways they survive what this book's subtitle aptly calls "the most challenging season." The most well-known avian response to winter, of course, is migration, which is a whole subject in its own right and is treated separately below. 

Staying Warm

The main challenge of winter is, of course, the cold. For most animals that are active in winter (including us humans), the way we fight this is through endothermy: the ability to make our own heat to control our body temperature. We take this ability for granted, but it's actually quite rare among animals. Check out the titles below to learn more about this ability and how we gained it, as well as how body temperature is managed in some animals that can't generate their own heat:

Fires of Life

This fascinating book offers a state of the art survey of the evolution of endothermy in mammals and birds. Starting with the appearance of vertebrates on land, this readable study covers hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution. It explores why endothermy evolved in the lineages where it exists. It also addresses the history of theories about the ability and the idiosyncrasies of paleontology and evolutionary scholarship. 

Body Heat

This survey of the significance of temperature in biology covers a huge range of topics in demonstrating the importance of body heat for animal (and even plant!) life. 

The Hot-blooded Insects

Here's Bernd Heinrich again, discussing his original specialty: insects that manage their own body temperature. This is a detailed scientific work, but the facts it reveals are fascinating. 

An Inaugural Dissertation on the Production of Animal Heat

Endothermy has long been a topic of scholarly investigation, as attested to by this 1797 Harvard bachelor's dissertation. You can read it online through Eighteenth Century Collections Online with your BPL card or eCard number and PIN. 

Getting out of Town

Just as not all people can take a winter vacation to the warmth of Florida or the Bahamas (especially now), so not all animals are able to just get up and leave when the weather turns cold. Some do, most obviously some birds, whose method for surviving winter seems to be to avoid it altogether. There's so much material on bird migration that I made an entire list (click 'View Full List' below to see the whole thing):

Bird Migration

View Full List

Birds aren't the only animals to migrate, however; some insects do as well. Perhaps the most famous is the multigenerational migration cycle of the monarch butterfly, detailed in the fantastic Monarchs and Milkweed :

No matter how they do it, the means used by nonhuman animals to survive (or avoid) winter are as varied as they are extraordinary. I hope that learning about the challenges and resilience of these creatures helps you trudge ahead through this season of cold and darkness.