‘Not a creature was stirring’ ... Well, maybe some mice, and St. Nick’s reindeer
I began writing as a hobby about a year before I retired as an elementary school teacher. The following has been tweaked over the past 15 years or so. I’ve had requests each holiday season from readers and friends to see it again. It contains new information.
I adapted the holiday story poem, “The Night before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore, adding natural history information about the winter habits of Keystone State’s mammals.
The list of Pennsylvania mammals that are true hibernators, the ones who go into a coma-like state during the winter, is very short.
A black bear for example sleeps, but not deeply. It can be easily aroused. It is not a true hibernator while the groundhog almost completely shuts down its vital body systems; it is a true hibernator.
There is no slowing of the black bear’s breathing and heartbeat,
So if you disturb a black bear you’d better quickly retreat.
Much like in Clement’s poem, the true hibernators have settled down for “A Long Winter’s Nap.”
The meadow-jumping mouse and the woodland-jumping mouse are true hibernators. Penn’s Woods’ other mice are active throughout the winter.
Within the fields and meadows near our house,
Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.
The jumping mouse’s fat little belly would surely shake like a bowl full of jelly.
With its little nose tucked into its chest, until the end of winter in the nest it will rest. Its underground nest was prepared with great care in hope the spring weather soon would be there.
Groundhogs retire to their burrows as the first signs of heavy frost arrive. They spend the winter in a death-like sleep while existing entirely on stored fat built up from food consumed during summer and fall. Recent research at the Penn State Berks Campus, Reading, found that males will stir and leave the burrows for short periods of time, getting a head start searching for females; not their shadows.
Late winter running of the maple sap is a male groundhog’s alarm to wake from his long winter’s nap. His shadow’s appearance on February two is a certain hinter, to go back to sleep for six more weeks of winter.
Pennsylvania has nine bat species that live or visit the state. The big brown, little brown, Keen, Indiana and pygmy bats stay and are true hibernators.
They do not even stir to see what is the matter, when the cave’s damp roof produces a resounding clatter. In their coma-like sleep they hang clustered together until the arrival of spring brings much warmer weather.
What are other Keystone State wildlife species doing in the winter?
A raccoon takes on a thick layer of fat, but it does not hibernate.
It becomes chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf and you’ll laugh at the sight in spite of yourself. While the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gives the luster of mid-day to raccoons below.
The familiar striped skunk, like the bear, is able to nap for a few weeks using its fat reserves. I’ve had a “close encounter of the skunk kind” and I knew just what to do. Back up, stay calm and slowly retreat. But “knowing and doing” are two entirely different concepts. One night on my way from my Pocono cabin to the annex, the one with the crescent moon on the door, I met Mr. Skunk face to face.
I looked for a wink of its eye and a twist of its head, signs showing I had nothing to dread. Then laying a finger aside of my nose, in quick retreat back up the steps I rose. Then I gave a safe sigh and also a whistle as the skunk ran away like the down of a thistle.
Gray squirrels are out and about unless there is a lengthy spell of frigid weather.
Where are the grays as the winter weather sets in? They’re playing in my yard with fat tummies and grins. Only extremely cold weather sends them to their tree dens with visions of my suet and birdseed dancing in their heads.
Our State Mammal, the white-tailed deer, is active year round, but unlike Rudolph, Dancer, Prancer and the rest of Santa’s reindeer, our white-tails can’t dash away, dash away, dash away all. When the snow is deep, has a hard crust or the ground is covered with ice the deer struggle to move about and feed. In winter they survive by foraging on grasses and woody twigs and buds.
And finally what to my wondering eyes should appear, but the sight of eight splendid white-tailed deer. Standing in my yard, a beautiful sight.
Now it appears I’ve run out of more words to write.
So Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
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