The winter woods rang with the chatter of thirty or so third graders on a snowshoe field trip. Bright spring sunshine buoyed all of our spirits. This was my last group in a two-day marathon that brought 120 students and their teachers from Hayward, WI, out hiking on the North End Mammal Trail.
Along the 1.1 k Ridge Trail loop, just south of Cable, the Museum has placed about 20 life-sized wooden silhouettes of local mammals. The animals were cut out by students at Drummond High School, and their features were wood burned on by Museum volunteers, including local artist, Donna Post. We’re partnering with the North End Ski Club. Soon, we’ll also have a self-guided trail booklet with facts about each mammal.
Today, though, I had two backpacks full of wolf and fox furs, track molds, and a deer leg to teach the kids about winter adaptations of animals. At the top of the first big hill, I stopped to let the tail of the line catch up. “This is the best field trip ever!” exclaimed one student. “I’m not going to make it,” countered a short-legged snowshoer with a dramatic flop into a snowdrift. I reminded them to keep eyes and ears open, like wolves on a hunt, as we continued single-file, pack-like, down the trail.
“What’s that?” “A fake wolf!” “No, it’s a bear.” I chuckled at the conversation behind me in line. We stopped by the first visible mammal cutout (the chipmunk at the first station was completely buried in snow-- “hibernating”). Pulling out the wolf pelt, a wolf track mold, and a deer foot, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of big feet. Appropriately, March is the “snow crust moon” in the Anishnaabe culture, and this gives a huge advantage to wolves with big feet over deer with small pointy feet, just like snowshoes help us humans stay on top of the snow.
A little farther on, my entourage spotted a flying squirrel attached partway up a hollow tree. These little nocturnal mammals have a fun behavioral adaptation for staying warm in winter – sharing body heat by snuggling together in groups of twenty or more. We did our own experiment, huddling in groups of six or so kids. I gave each cluster a thermometer and they had to try to get it as warm as possible. In just ten seconds they raised it ten degrees above the air temperature!
At another stop, we talked about the hunting strategies of long-tailed weasels. Like the small mammals they eat, the weasels spend a lot of the winter in the subnivean zone--in the air pockets and tunnels that open up at the boundary between earth and snow. Stored warmth from last summer’s sun radiates out all winter, and is trapped by the insulating snowpack. This helps to melt little chambers in the snow, and keeps the subnivean zone at a balmy 32 degrees.
I pulled two weasel furs out of my pack, and we all admired the excellent camouflage of their summer-brown and winter-white coats. Students pulled off their snow-crusted gloves to feel the amazingly soft fur, and we exclaimed at how skinny these creatures are – all the better for following mice into their burrows!
Then I asked the students to try and find the subnivean zone. A comical flurry of digging ensued, with colorful stocking caps disappearing down into holes. We never found the ground under all this snow, but we did discover an interesting series of icy and fluffy layers with different snow textures in the snowpack.
The wooden cutout of the black bear was easy to find, and students were eager to share their knowledge about bears. “What do you know?” I asked. We talked about mamma bears having their babies during hibernation, and male bears being more impatient to leave their dens in the spring. “So this bear must be a male,” observed one student.
My question “what do bears eat?” brought many answers. “Humans?” Well, no, but berries, fish, honey, insects, deer (fawns), seeds, and garbage to name a few. “So what’s that called,” I asked, “when an animal eats both plants and meat?” “Omnivore!” came the answer. Then we compared humans, with our omnivorous diets, to bears. I had the students feel their flat molars with their tongues. Those teeth are for grinding up carrots sticks, and bears have flat back teeth, too. Then we ran our tongues over our sharp front teeth. Bears also have sharp front teeth for tearing off bites of meat.
Finally, we ended up at the silhouette of the red fox. We talked about their fluffy, scarf-like tails, warm fur, and excellent hearing. Like owls, foxes can hear mice under the snow, triangulate their position, and pounce. Amazingly, scientists in the Czech Republic and Germany have discovered that foxes are more successful at catching mice in tall grass or snow if they face north to hunt. Over seventy-two percent of successful attacks were made when the fox was facing north, and foxes were also somewhat successful when they faced due south. Attacks from other directions were largely unsuccessful.
Why is the big question, of course, and scientists still don’t know for sure. “If you grow up to be a scientist,” I suggested to the line of bright-eyed explorers, “you could help figure it out!”
Whether or not any of them will grow up to be scientists, I have no idea. But at least we had a positive experience in nature that may inspire them to continue exploring and protecting the woods for years to come.
“To love what we do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?” –Katharine Graham
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI, at 13470 County Highway M. The current exhibit, “Deer Camp: A Natural and Cultural History of White-tailed Deer,” opened in May 2013 and will remain open until April 2014.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com