As I write this, Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. I am not a fan of the “holiday” such that it is. Rather it marks a different milestone for me. The middle of February is when many animals awake. Love is in the air for them as well as humans, and often it is the males that leave their winter slumbers to go wandering about the landscape in search of females. Others stay active all winter and choose this time of year to pair up, lay eggs, give birth or mate.
Skunks for example. They don’t truly hibernate but rather stay tucked away in their burrows until the weather and mood strikes them. Males often leave their dens in February to seek out females. Their efforts run through March, often resulting in an increase of skunks crossing roads this time of year, so keep an eye out for them as you drive at night. An increase of skunk smell is common at this time of year, too, as reluctant females let the males know they aren’t in the mood… yet.
Raccoons are another slumber species, not truly hibernating but sleeping as often as possible and conserving energy. Until now of course, when urges arise and males leave their cozy shelters to seek out females in their territories. Like skunks, they often travel across or along roads and are victim to cars, especially at night. Getting hit by a car certainly dampens the mood and I admit to feeling very sad when I see them dead along the road. They were just looking for love. It makes me drive more carefully this month.
February marks the end of the Gray Squirrel amorous season and in mild winters the first litters are born at the end of the month. Gray Squirrel females release a pheromone that attracts males from miles away. Often at the beginning of the year this is why you may all of sudden see scads of Gray Squirrels where they had been uncommon earlier in the season. I know in the backyard at home they all appeared a couple weeks ago, six of them at least, chasing each other up and down the Sugar Maples.
River Otters take their time in romance, breeding almost a full year before giving birth. That doesn’t mean that it takes that long to have the baby, it just means that after the otters do their thing between December and April, the female delays implantation for eight months or longer. With a two-month gestation, that puts the resulting offspring of the tryst entering the world ten to twelve months after copulation. Remarkable. So love is in the air this season, it just takes a long time to produce anything.
A feathered member of the February love club is the Great Horned Owl. Their courtship began long ago, though not as long ago as the otters. In late November and December, the owls begin courting, eventually pairing up early in the year. In this region, these owls are producing results from their budding romances, laying eggs just about now.
Eagles also join this club, renewing their relationship not with flowers and chocolate but by working on the nest together, either building it if they are a newly formed pair, or reinforcing and remodeling a bit of they have been together awhile. That sounds romantic enough to me… and quite a bit more practical.
Love isn’t defined across species, and expressing it takes countless forms. Late winter is a time for mammals to capitalize on reproduction when the mother has ample stores of energy left to feed young since they need nothing from the outdoors. Incubating eggs is a different story, and females can’t do that without good mates to make sure they stay fed and able to keep those eggs warm.
Once spring arrives and the offspring venture into the world they are then greeted with the most nutritious season, filled with fresh grass and swollen buds, newly hatched insects, and if they are predators, many slow and inexperienced young animals to catch. Hunting is easier too, without the thick snow that protects the ground dwellers.
Incidentally, groundhogs don’t enter their breeding season until March and April. Perhaps it should be Skunk Day, not Groundhog Day… though I wouldn’t want to wake up a reluctant skunk.
However you celebrate this mid-winter holiday, remember that the animals are celebrating it too, in their own ways. It somehow makes the whole thing just a bit more tolerable knowing that humans base a now very consumer-oriented event on a naturally amorous time. Perhaps we should celebrate that February is what makes the renewal of spring possible, it starts now. I would be a fan of that holiday.
Sarah is a Senior Naturalist at Audubon Community Nature Center.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Cover Photo by Tim Harding.