Wooing in the Winter
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
While the term “dead of winter” sounds appropriate right about now, nature is anything but dead. While many animals sleep the winter away, some of our favorite Wintergreen animals are about to get very busy. Many species of wildlife see the beginning of the new year as prime time to find a mate and begin the process of producing the next generation. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist details the many wildlife species that use the cold winter months as their mating season.
The noisiest of winter mating culprits is the great horned owl. Hooting season begins in December and will continue through the mating period. Since great horned owls are monogamous these calls are usually duetting, where the female gives a 6-7 note call and the male answers with a 5-note call. Younger owls will use this period to hoot in search of a mate. The mating season begins early for most owl species due to their large size. In order to grow large enough to fly and learn to hunt when prey is abundant, the process begins early. Great horned owls generally usurp nests from other large birds such as hawks, herons or eagles and rarely add to its size or quality. Generally, 1-4 eggs are laid and are incubated for 25-36 days before hatching.
Coyotes are another animal that picks up the activity level as the weather gets worse. Coyotes are also monogamous and stay together in breeding pairs for several years so these canines are not scouring the landscape in search of a mate. Primarily only the dominant pair will breed during the mating season which begins in late December and extends to early March. Pups are born by mid-April and generally average 4-6 per litter.
Winter is also the time for stinky love. Skunks begin the breeding season near the most romantic of holidays, Valentines Day. The process is not for those with sensitive noses. Males spray each other in the fight for love and females are not afraid to spray males who they don’t want to mate with. This is the time of year many homeowners are aware of the presence of skunks due to the noises and the spray. Skunk litters range from 4-6 babies that arrive in May-June.
The oddest of winter breeders at Wintergreen is undoubtably the opossum. The opossum is the only marsupial in Virginia and has quite a unique breeding season. The time for mating begins in December and can continue for several months. The female is a spontaneous ovulator and is in estrus for up to 36 hours. 11-13 days after mating a litter averaging 8-9 infant opossum are born. This is the shortest gestation of any mammal in Virginia. The newborns weigh approximately .13 grams at birth. The tiny infants must make the long difficult journey from the birth canal to the pouch, latch on to a teat and continue developing. The young stay in the pouch for 2.5 months and open their eyes between 55-70 days. The maturing opossum will be left on their own at 4-5 months at approximately 7-9 inches in length. Despite this long process, Virginia opossum can have multiple litters every year.
The list of species increasing their winter activity in Virginia is quite extensive. Add in the bald eagle, raven, beaver, river otter and mink to the list of winter breeders and the outdoor enthusiast at Wintergreen has plenty to watch for in the “dead of winter”.