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Coping with snow: how animals deal with a Tehachapi winter

Land of Four Seasons

With winter officially starting on December 21, the season of potentially low temperatures and snow has returned to the Tehachapi Mountains, even though there certainly hasn't been too much cold weather yet this year.

But the change in seasons brings about a varied response in the different living things that call this area home.

Some opt for a strategy called snow avoidance, in which they simply try to not experience snow or freezing temperatures. This includes virtually all the reptiles and amphibians, who are nestled in burrows, hidden in fallen logs or rock piles, or buried in deep leaf litter, spending the winter brumation period in their hibercula. These creatures may live for many years and never once see snow, preferring to sleep through winter.

Others practice snow avoidance by simply leaving the area and heading south to warmer locations. These include many bird species, such as orioles, tanagers, swallows, most hummingbirds, flycatchers, warblers and many others. Local seniors with second homes or trailers in Laughlin or southern Arizona also practice snow avoidance.

Insects too avoid snow, by hiding underground or in other sheltered areas. Many simply live out their natural lifespans during spring, summer and fall and then all the adults perish, leaving only eggs to overwinter in the soil. A few that are good flyers, like Monarch butterflies and some dragonflies, migrate like birds to warmer and more hospitable locations south of here.

Even some mammals, like California ground squirrels, chipmunks and some mice, practice snow avoidance by holing up in protected burrows to sleep through the coldest time of year.

Most mammals and our resident birds, though, practice snow tolerance and survive by adapting to snow. A snowstorm may make their lives tougher for a while, but in our area the snow generally melts in a few days and life gets easier again.

For most animals, the main difficulty caused by snow is that it conceals food sources. Seed-eating birds like California Quail, White-crowned Sparrows, House Finches and others must forage in bare areas, like in the shelter around the base of trees, brushpiles or in windswept areas devoid of snow to locate fallen seeds that lie scattered on the ground.

Those that graze or browse, like cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits and deer also look for protected areas on the lee side of trees and boulders for exposed greenery, or even dig down through the snow layer to access the grass and foliage hidden below.

Domesticated animals like cattle, sheep and horses also face a more difficult time accessing pasture underneath a blanket of snow, but they nibble on the plants they can see and generally get supplemented with hay or grain from their owners. And although city dwellers from warmer locations may worry about how farm animals cope with the cold, livestock generally grow denser coats in winter and have an easier time with cold temperatures than they do with heat in the hottest days of summer.

For predators snow can sometimes make their lives less difficult, making it easier for them to locate and catch prey animals that are more visible against the starkness of a white landscape.

Bobcats, Coyotes, Gray Foxes and Mountain Lions are here year-round, and they still must hunt and or find something to eat. Most predators don't eat every day, however, and they can go days without eating if they have to. In the event of rain or snow, they typically hunker down until the storm passes and then go in search of a meal.

Regardless of their survival strategy, creatures (and people) in Tehachapi seldom have deal with snow for long, for temperatures soon rise above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow melts away, turning into a wonderful source of slow-release moisture that trickles into creekbeds and the aquifer.

And as my friends and I who grew up here always observe this time of year: "It just doesn't feel like Tehachapi until it's uncomfortably cold!" Try to enjoy our cold weather and infrequent snowstorms, whatever coping mechanisms you employ.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].