How do critters survive Minnesota winters?

Black-Capped Chickadee Perched on Pie Tree Branch with Cones
Black-capped chickadee perched on pie tree branch with cones in winter

After living in Minnesota for more than 30 years, I finally bought myself a serious coat, the kind that looks like a giant, puffy sleeping bag with a huge faux fur hood. It’s hideous, and I couldn’t be happier or more comfortable.

Now, rather than fretting over whether I’ll freeze to death before I make it all the way around Lake Harriet, I’m free to ponder how in the hell living creatures can possibly survive outdoors for months in our unforgiving climate. In case you’re wondering too, I did some reading, and here is some of what I learned.


Sure, a lot of birds head south for the winter. But here in Minnesota, many birds stay put, including house sparrows, woodpeckers, blue jays, American goldfinches, Northern cardinals and black-capped chickadees, to name a few.

How do they survive? Well, not all of them do.

When we go through long periods of terribly harsh cold, only the strongest birds make it. And they do it by doing some of the same things we might, like shiver, especially through the night when it’s really cold, so they can maintain their body heat. Some birds also squat down to cover their legs and feet as best they can. (Oh, those tiny little bare legs.)

Because all that shivering burns off fat, birds are really hungry in the morning. So if you’d like to help out with a meal, fill a tray or platform feeder with a nice mix of black oiler sunflower seed, peanut pieces, safflower seeds and cracked corn.

To offer a little something for everyone, consider having a tube-style feeder with a similar mixture in it for birds that prefer to eat that way. While you’re at it, maybe throw in a suet feeder or two and a finch feeder packed with tiny bits of thistle and sunflower pieces (they love sunflower pieces).

Want to provide some water too? Plug in a heated dog dish or birdbath. Birds bathe all year long to keep their feathers clean, which helps them hold in warmth.

Ground squirrels and chipmunks

While chipmunks hibernate in the winter, sleeping in their burrows where they wake up every now and then to have a snack and poop and pee, eastern gray squirrels must survive the cold on food they’ve either hoarded or can forage somehow. They often stay in their nests for several days when it’s bitterly cold, but otherwise they’re out and about hunting for all of those nuts they carefully buried.

How successful are they at finding all of those?

“A gray squirrel can hide 25 nuts in a half an hour and can later find roughly 80 percent of the those it buried,” according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

I’m impressed.


Hibernation means different things for different creatures.

In the case of frogs, many aquatic frogs hibernate in the water. But rather than burrowing deep into the mud like turtles, they hang around near the bottom of a pond or stream where they breathe oxygen from the water through their skin. (Fun fact: extremely cold water holds more oxygen than warm water.)

Other frogs, like tree frogs and wood frogs, endure a more sci-fi experience in that they pretty much freeze solid for the winter months. Hibernating under logs or in leaf litter, they wait out the winter as little frog popsicles that reanimate once the weather warms up.

Wild turkeys

It’s hard to take a nature walk in the city these days without running into at least a few wild turkeys. Huge and strangely prehistoric looking, those turkeys are as tough as they look and can usually survive our brutally cold weather as long as they can find food, particularly fruit-bearing shrubs and trees as well as grasses and seeds.

The biggest hardship they face is deep powdery snow that can make it too difficult for them to forage. If those conditions persist for more than a couple of weeks, many turkeys can starve to death, which totally makes me want to set up a Little Free Wild Turkey Emergency Feeding Station in my front yard.

I know. You’re super-glad you’re not my neighbor.  

Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing.