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What are animals up to in autumn?

October 8, 2021

by Lindsey Flannery

Fall is a beautiful time to enjoy nature in Illinois, and if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that many of our animal friends are as busy as can be! They’re preparing for the long winter ahead. From mating to migrating, gathering food to hibernating, all species prepare in different ways. Read on to learn more, and find an activity that will help you prepare for winter, too!

Squirrels gather food

Squirrels are small, and they need a layer of fat to stay warm all winter long. How do they put on that layer of fat? Like all of us do: they eat! Nuts like acorns, chestnuts and walnuts are squirrels’ food of choice because they are high in nutritious fats. Not only will squirrels eat more than usual in fall, they will also bury nuts near their nests for easy access during the winter months. They will also begin to slow down and move less in the fall to save energy.

Squirrels are an easy animal to observe because they live all around us in our urban environments -- you maybe even have some in your own backyard. Next time you’re outside this fall and spot a squirrel, watch it for a while. You might get to see how quickly it can shell a nut!

Monarchs migrate

Every fall, monarch butterflies in the Eastern U.S. and Canada perform one of the most magical of all migrations in the animal kingdom: they fly up to 3,000 miles south in increasingly massive swarms to overwintering grounds in Mexican fir tree forests. This is the farthest migration of any insect in the world.

The monarch migration is especially fascinating because the monarchs that fly to Mexico have never been there before, but they follow almost exactly the same paths every year. Additionally, the monarchs that make the migration, called the Super Generation, live up to eight months, which is eight times as long as monarchs in the first three non-migrating generations. They overwinter in Mexico and mate in the spring, and then their offspring travel north and the process begins again.

See if you can spot monarchs near colorful flowers and other nectar sources. The end of September is the peak of the monarch migration at our latitude!

Groundhogs hibernate

Many mammals in Illinois slow down in the winter to conserve energy, but only the groundhog (also known as a woodchuck) is a true hibernator.

During hibernation, the groundhog’s breathing slows to only 5-10 breaths per minute, its body temperature drops dramatically, and it loses a quarter of its body weight (which is a lot for a 13 pound animal). True hibernation differs from the deep rest many other mammals experience, called torpor, because hibernators stay in this slow state for the entirety of the cold season. Animals like the chipmunk occasionally come out of torpor to eat, because they don’t have enough body fat to hibernate continually.

The woodchuck feeds heavily on vegetation and insects all summer long, eating up to a pound of food at a time, to gain enough weight to survive winter. Then, around October, they’ll hibernate in their elaborate underground burrows for up to five months! Yes, this means that in Illinois, groundhogs are almost always sleeping right through their namesake day on February 2nd, coming out of hibernation around early March.

Deer mate

The whitetail deer of the Midwest go through an important mating ritual every fall called the “rut.” During this time, from mid-October through December, buck behavior changes as they work to secure mates. They rub their antlers on trees and scrape the ground with their hooves, leaving their scent to mark their territory. They become more aggressive and may even spar with other bucks to compete for a mate.

Deer are triggered by the shorter, cooler days to begin the rut. After mating in the fall, fawns are born in May or June.

Ladybugs gather and go dormant

There are thousands of species of ladybugs, but perhaps the most well-known here is the spotted Asian lady beetle, thanks to its tendency to gather in large groups in people’s homes. For this reason it has the reputation as a pest, but the spotted Asian lady beetle actually provides excellent pest control.

To survive winter, these beetles eat massive amounts of aphids and other soft-bodied insects. This is why they’re often found in the soybean fields of the Midwest in large quantities in the fall, where aphids are abundant. However, once the soybeans are harvested, the beetles seek out south-facing rock faces and cliff sides to gather into large groups and go dormant for the winter.

Unfortunately for humans, the south-facing side of a lightly colored home looks a lot like a rock face to an Asian lady beetle. They will find their way into tiny cracks to gain entry to a home, and gather behind the walls.You’ll see them emerging in your windows and on your walls in late winter and early spring.

Prepare for winter like the animals: make dried apple slices!

Just like squirrels, humans have long harvested, prepared and preserved food in the fall to get through the long winter months when nothing fresh is growing. Before humans could simply drive to a grocery store, storing food was necessary for survival!

One of the simplest ways to preserve food is to dry it. Indigenous peoples and American settlers alike dried meat, fish, vegetables and fruit to preserve it for the winter months. Try this recipe for drying apples. It’s the most fun if you gather the apples as a family!

Dried apple slices

Cut three to four apples into very thin slices and let them soak in four (4) cups of water for about 10 minutes. If you want to keep the apples from browning, you can add a half cup of lemon juice (bottled or fresh) to the water first. Kids can do the mixing while an adult slices the apples.

Next, lay the slices out on a cookie sheet or baking rack. Bake in the oven for one hour at 200 degrees, flip, and then bake one to two hours more. Or, if it’s a nice sunny day, you can set the apples in the sun to dry for a day or two, instead of using the oven -- just cover with a flour sack towel or cheese cloth to keep bugs off, and bring them in overnight if it takes more than a day.

The finished apples should be leathery and chewy. Store them in a jar with a lid or other airtight container.

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