By Jessica Schlarbaum
Autumn is the season of change for New Mexico wildlife. Learn how to spot the signs.
When you think about the different seasons and what they mean for wildlife, you probably associate spring with babies and winter with hibernation. But what does autumn mean for wildlife?
Fall is a time when juvenile wildlife (those just born in the spring or summer before) learn to live on their own. Some animals make long journeys to their wintering grounds through migration. It’s also a time when many mammals, birds and reptiles prepare for the cold winter ahead.
On top of the behavioral changes necessary for hibernation and migration, many plants and animals undergo physical changes. While you and your family are out and about in nature this fall, how can you look for signs of these changes?
Juveniles growing up
You may stumble across a juvenile animal struggling during its first few months of independence. This is especially true for carnivores, who need to be skilled hunters to survive. At New Mexico Wildlife Center, one of the most common admissions we receive to our hospital in fall is first-year red-tailed hawks. Red-tailed hawks have to be able to maneuver skillfully to catch fast-moving rats, rabbits, squirrels and other prey. It often takes a few failed attempts before they get the hang of it. Unfortunately for some, these failed attempts can be detrimental to their survival -- only around 20 percent of red-tailed hawks survive their first year!
Cinder, our education red-tailed hawk, is a prime example of the dangers of a bird’s first year. Cinder came to us in March 2019, having hatched in the spring of 2018. Cinder still had a brown tail (not yet having developed the classic red tail that these hawks get in their second year), which is how we knew she was young.
Cinder was found alongside a highway after being hit by a car, most likely while she was hunting. Many first-year raptors are not as careful as older birds and often are hit by vehicles, run into windows or try to capture prey that is too large. Cinder had permanent damage to her left eye and was deemed non-releasable.
While she gets a second chance at life by living here at New Mexico Wildlife Center and helping us educate communities about local wildlife, others may not be as fortunate. If you find a raptor that you suspect is injured, sick, or starving call New Mexico Wildlife Center or your local wildlife center. And be sure to come visit Cinder and all our other Ambassador Animals at New Mexico Wildlife Center, now that we are once again open to visitors!
Migration brings hungry, thirsty visitors
Another important part of fall for wildlife is migration. In the fall, many birds, insects, mammals and fish make long journeys from their breeding grounds in the north to their wintering grounds in the south. Migration is a very demanding process energetically, and most migrating animals make sure to stop, rest and refuel along their way.
There are a few ways you can help wildlife refuel and rest on these journeys. One way is by putting out high-calorie and high-protein food for birds in your backyard. Along with seeds, you can offer peanuts, suet or dried mealworms. Pans of water or birdbaths can also help birds and insects refuel, but to ensure insects do not drown, place stones or marbles in a shallow dish of water. And remember to keep pets inside to give these tired animals a chance to rest safely.
An exciting part of migration for birdwatchers and animal-lovers alike is the appearance of rare, beautiful species. If you decide to create a feeding station for migrating species, expect to see some interesting visitors! Even our wildlife hospital at New Mexico Wildlife Center treats some rare species during fall.
Stocking up for winter
If you have squirrels or woodpeckers in your neighborhood, you may start to see them burying acorns or nuts in grass, trees or dirt. Curious as to what they are doing? These smart creatures are making sure their pantries are stocked before winter! Come November, food availability may be scarce, but with this hidden food they can ensure they’ll be full until spring. Did you know that a single acorn woodpecker can stash over 300 acorns in a year?
Another common way animals ensure they will not be hungry in the winter is by storing fat. Many mammals increase their food intake in the fall to make sure their fat stores are sufficient for surviving hibernation. Along with packing on the fat, these hibernating animals will start collecting materials in the fall to pad and insulate their dens for hibernation!
You may wonder why you suddenly begin to see bark torn off the side of trees in forests or wilderness areas in the fall, or why some small trees are completely knocked over. This tree damage is commonly caused by deer during their rutting season. While many animals breed in early spring and have babies a month or so after, deer have a long gestation period. This means they breed in the fall and are ready to give birth by the following spring. In October, male deer begin competing to find a suitable mate by marking their scent on surrounding trees or physically sparring with each other.
Birds are molting
While fall is often associated with leaves changing colors and falling from branches, you might not know that a similar process happens to birds! While their feathers don’t physically undergo a color change, it may appear that way when they complete molting. Many bird species, males especially, grow in vibrant plumage (feathers) to attract mates in the spring. Come late summer or early fall, they no longer need this colorful attractant and will replace those feathers with a more dull plumage (their wintering plumage). Dropping and replacing feathers is an energetically demanding process, so many species will wait until the exhausting breeding process is complete to start molting.
If you find a wild animal that you suspect may be injured, sick, or weak be sure to contact your local licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice. You can contact the New Mexico Wildlife Center for more information at (505) 753-9505 or email@example.com. To learn more about the wildlife we have in our care, follow us on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.