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Feeding up for Winter

Squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, deer and bear are making the most of fleeting time

It’s a wild world out there. The wildlife who live among us, often just at the verge of perception, may be their most active this time of year, mating and feeding up for winter, whether in woods or burrows.
    Squirrels are coming at us from all directions. As well as scurrying across lawns and roads, as Michelle Steel wrote last week, they’re falling out of the sky. Two fell in as many minutes on my early November walk, one tumbling off a metal roof, the other flopping out of a tree. It was a holly tree, and that explained the phenomenon. That and the presence of another squirrel gorging on the red, fermented berries. Once tipsy, even sure-footed creatures lose their balance.
    Groundhogs are especially fat at this time of year, as you can see with your own eyes as the low, furry creatures browse and nibble along rural roadsides. Soon the groundhogs will make their descent underground. Sometimes, they will burrow as much as six feet, writes John Taylor of Edgewater, the naturalist, artist and author of Chesapeake Spring. “Often he will bury himself alive, closing off his sleeping chamber with soil.”
    Groundhogs are not our only hibernating mammals. Bears, chipmunks and bats also hibernate, but not just yet.
    Hibernation is dependent on both temperatures and food supplies, and, at least for now, food is still ample and temperatures warm. By early December, conditions will change, beginning the season of hibernation.
    We don’t see so much of chipmunks, but our woods are their homes. Like groundhogs, they burrow in the ground to hibernate. Bats hibernate in old trees or buildings, attics and, when available — as in western Maryland — caves. That’s where they fall prey to white nose syndrome, a fungus that has killed more than a million bats in the northeastern United States since 2006. Bats with the fatal syndrome use up their fat reserves before winter ends and are driven from their caves by hunger to search for insects they’re unlikely to find in winter.
    Bears are Maryland’s biggest hibernators. Pregnant sows go to sleep first. In our four western counties, they go to den in the last two weeks of November. Males follow shortly thereafter. They enter the fast of hibernation fat as can be after fall foraging. Smack in the middle, Maryland’s 2013 six-day bear-hunting season reduced our population of Ursus americanus by 94.
    Deer, who don’t hibernate, are out to mate as well as to feed. As with bears, hunting season coincides with this period of increased activity. Deer archery season continues through November 29. The next day, firearms season opens throughout Maryland and continues until December 14. Deer will be even more active during those two weeks.