Fat squirrels, exposed hares, sad skaters: Winners and losers in Canada’s balmy December

After a record-breaking 59 days of ice time in 2014-2015, the Rideau Canal Skateway may be facing a much shorter season.
After a record-breaking 59 days of ice time in 2014-2015, the Rideau Canal Skateway may be facing a much shorter season.

It’s not just you: the squirrels really are fatter.

Temperatures in the nation’s capital soared to an unseasonably warm 9 C on Tuesday, the latest in a string of mild days that have many wondering if winter is going to show up at all. Normally, Ottawa would be seeing highs of about -2 C and lows of about -10 C at this time of the year, with plenty of snow already recorded.

As the city’s residents — and residents of other major cities like Toronto and Montreal — saunter around in light jackets, the local wildlife is also feeling the effects of an extended fall season, for good and for ill.

According to Randal Heide, Executive Director of Wildlife Preservation Canada, the impact of the weather will depend a lot on the species of animal.

“Some migratory and hibernating species are driven primarily by conditions such as temperature or food supplies, while others are very much ‘locked in’ to the calendar, using cues such as hours of daylight or even genetic predisposition,” he explained

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Sated squirrels

The mild weather has given squirrels, who fatten themselves up in the fall to survive lean winter months, more time to pack on the pounds this fall.

“These animals aren’t burning off energy at night,” said Carleton University biologist Michael Runtz. “The fir trees are laden with fruit, they’re feasting away during the day.”

No, seriously. They’re chubby:

The birds and the beavers

Other winners include birds that feed from the ground, white-tailed deer that don’t need to expend as much energy navigating through the snow and even that most Canadian of animals, the beaver.

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“We should see beavers having a wonderful year because they store food for the winter,” Runtz said. “This open water situation has allowed beavers to venture out.”

One lucky guy.
One lucky guy. Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary / Global News


Hares in the crosshairs

If you already ditched your fall coat for a winter parka only to find yourself out of place in 10-degree weather, you kind of know how Ontario’s snowshoe hares feel.

Except snowshoe hares can’t change back into their brown summer coats. And their wintry white fur makes them bulls-eye targets for predators in wooded areas.

Nowhere to hide.
Nowhere to hide. The Canadian Press

Soggy frogs

Many frogs, including the Wood Frog and Spring Peeper, actually take advantage of frigid weather for a long nap. They could be in for a tough season this year, though: They rely on frozen ground to enter into a kind of winter stasis.

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Sad skaters

As the wildlife adjusts, the National Capital Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the Rideau Canal Skateway, has moved ahead with preparations for the 2015-16 skating season in spite of the balmy weather.

Crews have installed vehicle-access ramps, stairs and skate facilities along the canal and hooked up plumbing and electricity, said NCC spokesperson Jasmine Leduc. The water in the canal has also been raised to skating level.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the temperature to drop far enough for long enough for the ice to form and thicken.

As of this week, the canal water is still entirely liquid.

Leduc wouldn’t say whether the commission’s worried about a shorter season. Last year the canal was open to skaters for a record-breaking 59 consecutive days. The shortest season ever was in 2001-02, when the skateway was open for just 35 days.

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“The weather decides the opening of the Rideau Canal Skateway,” Leduc said.

“As you know Canadian winter temperatures fluctuate. At this time, it’s too early to speculate on the timing of the opening of the skateway.”