Winter Survival Strategies: Adaptation, Migration, and Hibernation

Winter Survival Strategies

As the northern hemisphere enters into the depths of winter – January, and February – we begin to embrace the reality of frigid temperatures and copious amounts of snow. We turn up the heat, throw on more blankets and layers of clothing, and bundle up in warm coats when going outside. 

I often look out my window during these months and wonder how various creatures survive in these conditions. My home is right beside a corn and bean field, so our backyard during warm weather has regular visitors from deer, fox, squirrels, snakes, mice, raccoons, opossums, to various birds and insects. Step outside in the depths of winter, however, and all activity seemingly comes to a stop. And these are questions that come to mind:

  1. Where are all the animals?
  2. How are they staying warm? Finding food and water?
  3. Which ones are hibernating? Which ones left for another environment?
  4. Which insects laid eggs that will hatch in spring?
  5. Which animals burrowed into the ground?
  6. Which ones need trees, shrubs, logs, and rocks for shelter?
  7. How might I help animals survive the winter?
  8. Why should I care if certain animals (likes snakes and mice and insects) survive? 

And, I wondered how to instill this sense of curiosity about animal survival strategies in our students. Last week we shared our warmth investigation experiment you can do with your students, which is a great way to introduce your students to the concept of how animals survive the winter. Physical adaptation is one way that animals survive the winter, but there are also other approaches they use to survive the cold. 

Essentially all creatures survive frigid weather through one of 3 strategies:
  1. Adaptation (changing behavior or physical features)
  2. Migration (moving to a different environment)
  3. Hibernation (slowing metabolism and conserving energy through slumber or rest)



Adaptation is a process of changing in an effort to survive your environment. To explain this concept, ask students how they adapt to changing weather. What do people do differently when the weather gets warmer or colder? What about when it is rainy? How do students adapt their clothing choices based on the changing weather conditions? How do their choices of activities change dependent upon the weather? What are some techniques people use to stay warm outside? 

Ask students how animals also adapt to survive the winter season. How do they stay warm? How do they eat? How do they protect themselves from predators? Have students research how some of these animals adapt to weather conditions and either write a few sentences, and/or express their findings in a drawing or slide presentation.

Here are some examples:

  • Birds fluff up their feathers so the air between feathers provides insulation.
    • Compare this to how we dress in layers because the trapped air between our layers provides warmth.
  • Some animals naturally change their fur color to blend into the snow and add thickness to their fur for added warmth.
  • Some animals eat large amounts of food to develop layers of fat for added warmth.
  • Some animals that do not normally live together will huddle together in burrows or other enclaves until warmer weather.
  • Some animals stock up on food in their burrows so they have food to eat in the winter.
  • Many animals will survive by remaining active during winter. (ex: ducks, deer, rabbits, foxes)

You can follow up with these additional questions:

  1. How can we help animals different animals survive during the winter?
  2. How can we make sure active animals find food and water?
  3. How can we observe animals in winter?

Here are some suggested Activities:

    1. The Audubon Society has a website with tips on how to winterize your backyard for birds. If you could do this outside of your classroom window, it would provide a wonderful way to observe birds in the winter.
    2. Explore how fat, fur, feathers, and other materials provide insulation. You can try out our experiment with your students, “Investigating How Animals Survive Winter.
    3. Go on a nature walk and collect animal tracks. Perhaps use a camera to take pictures of the different tracks so you can research them in your classroom. Use the tracks to identify animals in your area that are active and research ways they survive and ways that you can help them survive.
    4. Take your students outside and explore the effectiveness of huddling together to stay warm using a thermometer. This touches on math.
    5. What animals spend the winter under the snow? (the subnivian zone) Explore what the subnivian zone is and how snow can be an insulator. (igloos, for example, provide shelter for the Inuit [Eskimos])



Many animals move to another environment for a better climate or steady food supply. You can use these questions to find out what your students know and to get them thinking about animals that migrate:

    1. What are some animals that migrate?
    2. Where do they migrate to?
    3. How long does it take to get there?
    4. Are there dangers along the way?
    5. Why do animals migrate?

There are sites that will track animals as they migrate and ask for readers to submit animal sitings during migration periods. These would be wonderful to use as we near warmer weather and want to observe animals as they move back home. Here are two:

Audubon has links to a number of sites that track specific birds around the world

Journey North is a fabulous website that allows individuals to submit their sitings of animals as they migrate. The site also has learning activities for students that connect them to our changing planet.

There are also apps for your devices that allow you to follow and track animals.

Animal Tracker is a popular app for Android devices.



Other animals will find a safe protected place to rest through the winter. There are lots of ways in which they do so. Bears, we know will sleep for long periods of time in dens or caves. Some frogs, however, will freeze solid and then thaw themselves out in warmer weather. Fish will swim at the very depths of rivers and ponds to stay warm.

To get your students thinking about hibernation, ask them to think about their backyards or other areas around their homes:

  • How can you help provide a safe haven for animals to spend the winter?
  • What are some ways we can provide natural cover and protection for animals to create a safe winter home?
  • How might we create some safe places for animals?

Many of the questions in this blog could lead to experiments, investigations, and even engineering challenges in your classroom. Maybe your students will want to create enclosures to help local animals like stray cats stay warm and safe during the winter. They could investigate and test different kinds of insulation and structures to help keep the animals warm and then construct an enclosure out of what works best (engineering).

Perhaps they will want to investigate local birds that as they return from migrating. You could go on nature walks and have your students observe and take data on which birds they see and track if the number of birds and kinds of birds they observe changes over time. By following your students’ interests, you will automatically deepen their learning.

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2 thoughts on “Winter Survival Strategies: Adaptation, Migration, and Hibernation”

  1. My grandchildren are always interested in animals and astronomy. They often ask similar questions. I think humans have always been interested in animals and curious about stars.
    I will try to use this blog in my classes in winter ( now it is summer in New Zealand ).

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