Critters stir after long winter’s nap

Northwoods Notebook

(Phyllis Carlson photos) A Ross’s goose, possibly on its way to the arctic tundra, stopped to feed this week in Quinnesec.

The first indications winter’s on ebb tide could be the sound of cardinals singing and the scent of skunk in the air.

The recent warm spell appears to have roused the region’s napping skunks enough to get out foraging. Already one was struck by a vehicle on M-69.

Animals when they first emerge from a torpor or hibernation state, like anyone else coming out of a deep sleep, usually will be somewhat groggy and slow, so more vulnerable if caught out on the road. The stubby-legged skunks, too, have never been built for speed, having developed other defenses.

Skunks don’t truly hibernate like chipmunks but instead, like raccoons, will hold up in a den site during much of winter, sleeping and expending as little energy as possible.

According to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology, a striped skunk can lose almost half its body weight over the winter as it draws on fat supplies built up during the summer and fall. So, again like raccoons, they can be triggered by hunger to seek a bite to eat during winter if temperatures and other conditions grow mild enough to warrant using some of those reserves in the search.

Winter still will take a toll. Most skunks don’t survive the first year, succumbing to severe weather or disease, according to the UM Museum of Zoology. Skunks, especially females, often will use communal dens, which is thought to allow disease to be more easily spread.

But if they make it, they can live six to seven years in the wild and are able to breed at 10 months. Which might be another reason why the skunks are out and about right now: mating season tends to be from February and to April. If successful, the females will give birth to a litter of two to 10 in May or June.


An opossum turned up dead on Six Mile Lake Road, a relative rarity given the only marsupial found in the United States and Canada tends not to fare well in the far north. Though its fur looks bushy, it provides only limited insulation from severe cold. Bare feet, tail and ears, too, are vulnerable to frostbite; many northern opossum will lose the tips of their ears and tail.

Cold claims a large number of young in the first winter and a fair share of adults, even though they, too, will fatten up and then den up during the colder months.

Despite this, the opossum has managed to expand its range north over roughly the past two centuries, probably aided by increased human habitation and, more recently, climate change, experts say.

As the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology put it, “Virginia opossums are extremely opportunistic feeders,” eating small mammals, birds and eggs, fruits and seeds, grasses and leaves, insects, earthworms, plus reptiles and amphibians depending on location. In urban areas, pet food and garbage can make up a fair share of the diet.

They have some unexpected powers, such as a very low susceptibility to rabies and immunity to rattlesnakes and other pit vipers. Not that we have such snakes up here, and they can be taken down by larger constrictors such as our native “pine” fox snakes, especially the younger individuals.


Some other early stirrings of spring movement: a Ross’s goose showed up earlier this week to graze on a few patches of exposed grass at a site in Quinnesec. These are among the smallest of North America’s native geese and at first glance appear to be an undersized snow goose. The easiest way to tell the two apparent, other than size, is snow geese have a dark “grin patch” along the edge of its less stubby bill.

The Ross’s goose doesn’t make it easy, though, in that it will hybridize with the snow, producing offspring that fit somewhere in between. These hybrids also account for the rare “blue” Ross’s goose, thought to be a result of blue morph snow geese introducing the color phase into Ross’s geese.

Ross’s geese used to be a rare sight east of the Rockies but has been expanding eastward in the past half-century, adding to the possibility of crosses with snow geese, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Since they nest in the arctic tundra, this Ross’s goose could be getting an early jump on getting to the breeding grounds.

Thanks again to Phyllis Carlson for the photo and report — she got called out as a wildlife rehabilitator by some well-meaning residents who worried the goose was on the ground because of injury, not hunger. It proved itself just fine by flying away as she approached, but was kind enough to return for photos and more feeding.

Phyllis, you’re getting in the column these days almost enough to share a byline.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or