The number of days from the first day of winter — winter solstice on Dec. 21 — until the vernal equinox — March 20 this year — is 90 days. One-half of that, 45 days, brings us to the first week of February. In different words, according to the calendar, we are midway through winter.
Calendar winter is not always what we experience in this region, and so if we look at the snow season, starting in mid-November and ending in mid-April (both dates are a bit nebulous), early February is also the middle. Either way, we are beginning the second half.
Subzero temperatures in the mornings are common at this time — still cold and we’ll see more snow. But despite the weather phenomena, other things are changing. We began February with about nine and a half hours of daylight; we’ll have 11 by the end of the month. Days rapidly get longer. Sunrise moves toward 7 a.m., setting well after 5 p.m. And many critters respond.
I notice chickadees singing their “feebee” song while nuthatches get more vocal and hairy woodpeckers continue to drum. Crows and ravens do more calling now during their morning flights while the nocturnal owls are heard in the darkness. Among the small mammals, squirrels that appeared to be interested only in food at the bird feeders are now becoming interested in each other. Tracks of rabbits and hare tell of their nightly activities as well.
Recently, while out along the roads and trails in the woods, I noticed that larger mammals are also reacting to the lengthening daylight. Despite chilly days, I saw the trails of foxes and coyotes at these sites. One location is so pronounced with their tracks and trails, that I call this place the “coyote crossing." They appear to be traveling far in their mid-winter wanderings, crossing the roads to fields and woods and even going onto a nearby lake.
The fox trails were more common in the woods and as I passed this way on my daily outings, I noticed plenty of their tracks. But both of these canines had something else to show along their route besides footprints: They both had done some scent-marking at selected sites.
The fox had zig-zagged on its wandering through the woods, but twice along the route, I saw that there was a yellow stain in the snow. The fox had chosen a place near small trailside plants, likely to be found by others, and here it deposited a bit of urine. With ample odor, it sent a scent message to others of its kind: This territory was taken, an olfactory “no trespassing” sign.
With weather changing, the sign will need to be renewed occasionally. I went farther along and out onto the lake. I found where a coyote, crossing this body of water, came to shore to give a scent-marking sign of his own. It then went back on the lake. The scent at the lake’s edge would be enough to tell other coyotes to stay away.
Both, the fox and the coyote, will make their rounds again. What is happening is that early February is breeding time for these canines. Scent-marking is part of this annual event.
Coyotes have a gestation of about 60 days and foxes, maybe a week less. Mating now can assure of springtime births and plenty of time to raise the new family in their territories. It’s early February, but wild canines are preparing for spring.