Show kids the secret lives of animals this fall

Animal behavior gets really wild as critters prepare for colder temperatures. Here's how to teach children to observe these amazing antics.

Kids might not love the shorter and colder days as we head into fall, but here’s one thing they might like: Almost all wild animals are up to some pretty interesting behavior they can observe.

Animals don’t have a wall calendar, so their autumn behavior is tied to the weather: Cooler temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight signal it’s time to prepare for winter. “You don't have as many warming hours with the sun,” says David Drake, a wildlife specialist at the University of Wisconsin. “So that tells the animals, ‘If you're going to migrate, it's time to start thinking about getting ready.’”

Encouraging kids to watch what animals are doing can foster important life skills like observation, focus, and even empathy. And if they look closely enough, they’ll discover that the animals are doing a lot. Here are some key critters to look for and their telltale signs that winter is coming.

The animal: Black bears

What changes in the fall: Bears famously spend winters in torpor, a deep sleep where they don’t eat, drink, or pass waste. They spend fall preparing dens and bulking up for their long snooze.

What kids might see: Bears digging and raking
What that means: Bears often reuse old dens, create one from a hollow tree or cave, or dig one out from hillsides, says Spencer Peter, a biologist at the North American Bear Center and Northwoods Ecology Hall. They’ll make the dens comfy by gathering dried leaves, grass, and tree bark. “This is what they’ll lie on top of in their dens,” he says. “They’ll make large piles of material, then scrape or carry it back to their dens.”

What kids might see: Bears eating constantly
What this means: In early fall, black bears enter a period of hyperphagia, which means they get very, very hungry. Their goal? Put on as many extra pounds as possible, which will provide them plenty of fat to live off of while they sleep. According to Sue Fairbanks, professor of natural resource ecology and management at Oklahoma State University, East Coast bears gorge on acorns and other nuts. In the middle of the country, they’ll stuff their faces with corn.

What kids might see: Bears moving very slowly
What this means: Later in the fall, after the period of hyperphagia ends, a bear’s heart rate, metabolism, and breathing starts slowing down. This helps them conserve energy as they prepare to survive their long winter sleep. “They’ll appear to be moving in slow motion and won’t be eating anything,” Peter says.

The animal: Canada geese

What changes in the fall: Although resident Canada geese stay in one place year-round, migratory geese start preparing for a long journey. These are the ones you’ll see flying in formation, sometimes in a V-shape, as they head to the southern half of the United States. But kids should also scan areas around open water like lakes and rivers, where the geese land to rest. They’ll stop and eat, then take off again—over and over.

What kids might see: A big group gathered in one spot
What that means: In the spring, a male and female will nest together. But in the fall, migratory geese will gather in a bigger group—from a couple hundred to tens of thousands—at resting spots along their journey south. Drake calls this “flocking up,” and it helps the birds protect themselves from predators like foxes and coyotes while they’re resting. A large group means more birds to play lookout; looking at so many birds at once can also overwhelm and confuse predators.

What kids might see: Geese walking along open fields with their heads down
What that means: Migratory geese eat a lot, adding as much as 34 percent of their body weight to provide them extra calories for more energy. “They’re like animal combines—they just walk across the ground with their heads down as they constantly eat,” Drake says. They’ll eat everything from corn, wheat, grasses, and water plants.

What kids might see: A feeding goose suddenly popping up its head
What that means: The goose is checking the area for danger. If everything checks out, they’ll keep on feeding. If a predator is spotted, that goose might take off—and the rest will follow.

The animal: Red foxes

What changes in the fall: Foxes mate for life and usually have a litter of kits in late winter. So fall means it’s time for those young foxes to leave the den and make room for new pups. Young females will start looking for life mates, and their brothers will start long journeys to find new territory.

What kids might see: Two or three female foxes staying close to the den
What that means: Some females stay and help Mom with the new arrivals. “I usually call that ‘the lady-in-waiting’ phase,” says researcher Christian Crosby of Rutgers University. “They’ll stick around for a year or two and help bring meals back to her siblings.” The females move on after their mom dies or a new potential mate arrives in the territory.

What kids might see: Foxes wandering around alone
What that means: These are likely young males, who’ve spent spring and summer in the den but are old enough in fall to find their own territory and start a new family. They sometimes travel up to 40 miles to find unoccupied fox territory, increasing the likelihood of kids spotting one on its journey.

What kids might see: Foxes hiding food
What that means: As prey like mice and rabbits gets scarcer in the fall, Crosby says foxes will start caching food, hiding it for leaner times. In fox-speak, “hiding” usually just means covering it with leaves or sticks.

The animal: Chipmunks

What changes in the fall: Chipmunks don’t hibernate in winter. Instead, they enter a deep sleep called torpor, in which they wake up only to feed. So fall is spent gathering plenty of food to store in their dens for those wakeful minutes. Autumn is also when chipmunks mate for the second time that year.

What kids might see: One chipmunk chasing another
What that means: Those aren’t pups playing tag. The chipmunk mating system is considered a “scramble competition,” says Lia Le Brun Robles Gil, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who studies chipmunks. It starts like a game of hide-and-seek, in which the females are spread out in their individual territories and males “scramble” into those territories to chase down the females. (This is different from the other common mating system—the “female defense” system—in which one male mates with and defends a group of females. Not that you need to tell kids this.) 

What kids might see: Chipmunks finding seeds to store
What that means: In spring, Le Brun Robles Gil says chipmunks go for high-protein prey like slugs, earthworms, and insects. But seeds are more plentiful than prey in fall, so chipmunks gather and store them in dens to survive the winter. A chipmunk can nab up to 180 acorns in a day!

What kids might see: Baby chipmunks
What that means: Chipmunks are on their own when they’re about six to eight weeks old. So in September and early October, “you'll just see all these really tiny chipmunks running around,” Le Brun Robles Gil says.

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