Exploring your world: Coping with cold through migration

Discover how Michigan animals cope with the months of cold winter temperatures.

Snowbunting. Photo by: Susan Drury from Watson Lake, Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Michigan State University Extension science team’s goal is to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) literacy across Michigan. One way we increase interest in STEM is to provide information and ideas for engaging youth in the exploration of their world.      

Winter is a fantastic time for STEM exploration. There is much to learn about the season, such as what snow is, what a snowflake is, or how snow impacts soundAnimal adaptations to the cold weather is another fascinating topic. This article will explore more about migration as a winter survival strategy.

To help youth explore how Michigan animals survive winter, begin by brainstorming what makes winter in Michigan different than the other seasons. Some things youth may say are cold temperatures, snow, frozen water, less food available in the woods, or any number of other answers. Explore with youth what change people make to survive winter in Michigan. Answers may include warmer coats, heated homes, snow tires, some foods being harder to find in the stores, more indoor activities, or temporarily relocating to warmer states. What about the animals? How do they adapt to winter? Do they make similar changes in their coats, food, homes and way of travel? 

This series of articles, “Exploring your World: Coping with Cold” will explore the four main strategies animals use to survive winter in Michigan: migration, dormancy, hibernating and remaining active.

Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one region to another. Many animals found in Michigan migrate between seasons. This migration is normally triggered by the change in the amount of daylight, as well as the change in temperature.

Some animals migrate away from Michigan as the days shorten and temperatures decrease. Ducks, geese and other birds that need open water for food and safety travel to areas where these needs are readily available. Insect and grub eating birds, like the robin and woodcock, leave as most insects die in winter. Nectar eating birds like the hummingbird also migrate, as most plants do not produce flowers during the winter. Monarch butterflies also move south, relocating to Mexico for the winter.

Other animals migrate to Michigan during the colder months. Pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos, snow buntings and crossbills are some of the birds seen in parts of Michigan only during winter when they migrate from further north for the warmer climate in Michigan.

Lastly, some animals never leave Michigan but perform their own form of migration. Because they’re cold-blooded, reptiles and amphibians can’t survive cold weather at all, so many migrate vertically, burying themselves in mud or deep underground.

Remind youth that humans are animals too. Ask youth to share which migration strategy they would prefer if they had to migrate. Do they like to burrow into a pile of blankets and read a good book? Would they rather head south where they can play outdoors in warm temperatures? Or do they eagerly await the first snowfall to go sledding, skiing and ice fishing? Whichever their preference is, remember migration is just one strategy animals use for coping with cold.

STEM engages youth in identifying problems, designing solutions as they explore and understand their world - the backyard, a pond, a frozen hill, outer space, or a pet dog. Science is not about being right or wrong, but rather working through questions with curiosity to discover answers. Identifying problems and designing solutions develops an interest for lifelong learning. A scientist or engineer is an explorer, always on the hunt for the why and how. You can help youth become lifelong learners as they explore their world by engaging them to ask questions and discover answers.

For more ways to encourage youth to become lifelong learners exploring their world, visit the MSU Extension 4-H Teaching Science When You Don’t Know Diddly-squat seriesa series of free activities designed to encourage the joy of discovery by asking questions and discovering answers.

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