I’ve been interested in the relationship between weather and animal behavior since I first started studying nature as a teen.
Wild animals are constantly outside, being affected by changes in cold, heat, rain, snow, wind & dry conditions.
This presents a great opportunity to gain deeper insight into the lives of local wildlife, and learn some amazing things about our environment.
Some common ways weather affects animal behavior:
- Birds gather in large groups and feed more aggressively before storms
- Rain following a long period of drought will increase insect & small mammal populations
- Mosquitoes bite more aggressively before it rains
- Deep snow sends deer to coniferous forests with shared trail systems
- Hawks are more likely to hunt in open fields during foggy conditions
- Birds sing less on windy days
- Summer heat moves animals to seek shade and become more nocturnal or crepuscular
- Raccoons and bears hibernate during the winter deep freeze
These are all general observations you might make about local animals immediately before, during or after a significant shift in weather.
However it’s important to realize the effects of weather on animals will always depend on local conditions and what resources are most lacking during a particular season.
For example: rain has a more significant influence on animal behavior in the desert than in the rainforest because water is more scarce in dry climates.
This means the exact same animals might react with two completely different responses for rain in a wet climate vs a dry climate, or in winter vs summer.
It’s important to always consider how weather fits into the overall context of your local environment and why.
So let’s take a closer look at how different types of weather affect animals in a variety of situations.
You can then use these weather scenarios to better understand the patterns of animal behavior in your local area for tracking & overall nature appreciation.
(As you study animal behavior in different types of weather, you might also find it useful to know how to predict weather with clouds)
How Does Rain Affect Animal Behavior?
Let’s talk about rain first… What happens to animals when it rains?
Heavy rains interfere with how well animals are able to see, hear and smell, as well as regulate their body temperature.
This can be a major risk factor for survival, especially during extreme temperatures or when being hunted.
For this reason, intense rains will typically cause animals to seek shelter.
This is true even for domestic animals, as many pet owners know their cats & dogs are able to detect approaching storms and seek shelter under the bed.
However, one of the less obvious yet equally significant effects that happens during rainfalls is insects are unable to fly and be active as normal.
This might seem like a minor detail, but it actually has massive implications that dramatically affect every animal on the landscape.
The sudden decline of insect activity temporarily eliminates a major food source for higher animals on the food chain, making it more energy efficient to wait for things to clear up.
This also means that before the storm arrives, you can look for a complimentary increase of activity as everyone prepares themselves for downtime.
Insects become more active as they prepare for rain, which creates opportunities for insect hunters like birds, and further opportunities for bird eating hawks and mammals.
It’s useful to notice these are all just common sense observations that come from thinking critically about how everything connects together outside before, during & after a rain event.
Sudden Rain VS Extended Rain
With all this in mind, it’s important to realize the effects of sudden storms immediately following dry weather are very different from the effects of long slow rains that last for many days without stopping.
This is partially because animals can only wait out the rains for so long before they have to venture out and start finding food again.
This means the longer a period of rain continues, the more likely you are to see animals returning to their normal activities.
But keep in mind that during extended rains there are still ongoing behavioral changes that can be observed.
The ability of animals to hear subtle sounds & long distances in the forest is still reduced during rain so you might observe more dependance on visual predator avoidance strategies.
Animals might adopt different movement patterns through the landscape, that help them cope with reduced hearing distances.
When studying the effects of rain, always ask yourself questions like:
- How long has it been since the last rain?
- How dry/wet is the landscape right now?
- Am I in a dry or wet climate?
- How intense/docile is this rain?
After the rain, look for a flurry of activity as plants & insects get a sudden boost in growth, fuelling a cascade of life that moves up through the entire food chain, so let’s talk about that next.
Animal Behavior During Dry Weather & Sunshine
So what about sunshine and dry weather?
How do these factors affect the behavior of animals?
A sudden break of warm sunshine following extended periods of rain will activate an influx of growth in the lowest levels of the food chain including insects and plants.
The extra warmth and increased availability of food means animals gain a nice boost of energy at a time when their needs are high.
This is a great opportunity to see increased animal activity including hunting, foraging, singing, mating, nest building, courtship & territorial behaviors (assuming you’re in the right season for these behaviors to occur).
But as dry conditions last for longer periods of time, there comes a point where the increase of plant life, insect life & by extension mammals, birds, frogs & salamanders eventually starts to diminish again.
This is because the balance of moisture starts to tip in the opposite direction.
Always remember that life is a delicate balance between fundamental elements like sunshine, warmth & moisture.
If any one of these things becomes too dominant or lacking, it starts to affect the entire system, starting with the animals that are most sensitive and with the shortest life spans.
Eventually, long periods of dry weather will cause wildlife activity to slow down and become increasingly concentrated around water.
This concentration happens a lot faster and with greater intensity in a dry climate like a desert.
The animals have to conserve water & energy as much as possible, so they spend a lot of time hiding in dark, cool spots, or possibly becoming more nocturnal.
If it weren’t for the coyote tracks & scat left in the sand, you might be led to believe there’s no life in this place, (but there definitely still is when you know where to look).
How Snow Affects Animal Behavior
Aside from the cold (which we’ll talk about in the next section), snow primarily affects animals because it covers up bare ground.
This extra layer of snow cover makes it more challenging for animals to find nuts, seeds, insects & any remaining plant life on the soil surface.
As a result, you’ll notice some parts of the landscape become almost void of birds & other animals, while activity can be surprisingly concentrated around bird feeders and warm micro-niches.
With light snows, it’s very common to see animals clumping together on sunny south facing slopes, or next to the thawed edges of water where they can access food more easily.
Light snows that fall on warm autumn soils only have minor effects because the ground is still relatively accessible and easy to move around.
But as the snow becomes deeper, it starts to become increasingly difficult for animals to manage that depth without changing survival strategies.
In deep snow, even large animals like deer will be forced to change their home territory and move into shared trail systems so they can conserve energy on movement.
Small mammals deal with the change by tunnelling under deep snow, which in turn creates extra challenges for the predators who feed on them.
- How deep is this snow?
- Is there open ground anywhere?
- Are you in a deep freeze or are there still sunny places that could host insect activity?
- Where are the gathering points for animals? And where are the voids?
- What is causing food & animals to accumulate in certain locations, but not others?
Temperature & Animal Behavior
Temperature is like a modulator for animal behavior because it affects the required energy outputs to maintain body heat.
Generally, the colder it is the more energy is required for animals to maintain their body heat.
But temperature can also dramatically affect the availability of food through secondary effects on plants & insect populations.
It’s important to account for all the possible variables, including the influence of your current season & the particular quirks of your local environment.
A cold day in spring might be a warm day during winter, and this is why we can’t just rely on blanket statements like birds do this in cold, while squirrels do that.
A lot of this just comes down to using your own human intuition about how YOU feel in different types of weather.
Even though we no longer live in the wilderness, human beings are still animals who react to cold & heat with similar biological responses.
If you learn to think like an animal, you can use your own body & imagination to predict how different types of animals will react to the same conditions.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some general rules & mindsets to consider when it comes to the effects of temperature on animal behavior.
How Cold Affects Animals
Cold has significant effects on how animals regulate their body temperature, leading to all different types of responsive behaviors.
The other major factor with cold (especially freezing temperatures) is that it stops the growth of plants & insects which dramatically reduces food availability through the entire food chain.
Every animal has their own biological and behavioral way of dealing with increased energy needs combined with lack of food in the environment.
Large mammals like deer put on stores of fat during summer, which can be burned for energy during the cold season.
So during cold weather, deer are still quite active, but their energy outputs will far exceed what they’re able to take in.
Meanwhile, many smaller mammals like chipmunks, bats & groundhogs have the ability to hibernate underground and wait for warmer conditions to emerge.
This wait-it-out strategy is also used by reptiles & amphibians, though the biology is different because they’re cold blooded.
Other types of small mammals like voles, mice & weasels do not hibernate, but require consistent access to food in order to keep their metabolism going.
This is similar to the behavior of birds. Birds are surprisingly equipped for dealing with cold, but they do need a consistent food source in order to do it.
More than the direct effects of being cold, many birds migrate south because of the significant lack of food available during winter in frozen lands.
It’s pretty complex and fascinating how every animal has their own unique way of dealing with extreme cold.
How Does Heat Affect Animals?
Animals respond to heat in much the same way humans do.
At a certain point, the body is working so hard to cool down, that the most energy efficient thing to do is start shutting off systems that generate heat.
This will make animals act lethargic, low energy, and retreat to the comfort of shade during the hottest hours of the day.
You probably know what this feels like too!
A classic example is the pride of lions out on the african savanna, lying down in the shade through the hot day.
In truly hot conditions like this, many animals will become nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn & dusk) simply because they have more energy during the cool nights.
Another interesting fact about heat is that crickets will chirp faster as the temperatures increase.
If you know the species of cricket, there are mathematical formulas to calculate exact temperature by counting the number of chirps per minute.
It’s pretty nerdy and fascinating!
How Wind Affects Animal Behavior
Another factor to consider with the weather is wind.
Wind can have significant affects on animal behavior because it becomes more difficult to hear sounds in the distance.
One of the reasons birds sing most vigorously first thing in the morning is because dawn is typically the calmest time of day, meaning their voices travel farther across the landscape.
The ability to hear a sneaking predator in the bushes, or some distant bird alarms at the approach of a hawk can mean the difference between life and death for many animals.
For this reason you might notice animals being much more vigilant about watching and adjusting their movement patterns to locations where they have a better view of possible dangers.
In windy conditions that create “sound shadows” you might see animals moving more slowly, while staying alert and silently watching for long periods of time.
On the other hand you might also notice times when animals will move more quickly when covering distance during wind because they have that extra sound cover.
Wind can also have significant effects on insect activity. This can affect the food of animals that prey on insects.
Animals that are particularly susceptible to biting insects may seek the relief of more breezy locations, like a high point when the insects are bad.
Or on very windy days, you might notice animals are able to access more sheltered locations that are normally too over-run with flies.
Understanding Animal Behavior In All Weather Types
As you can see, there are almost endless variables to consider when it comes to understanding the effects of weather on animal behavior.
However I hope you’re starting to see how with a bit of critical thinking & some background knowledge about the animal you want to understand, it’s possible to accurately predict the most likely scenarios.
Always seek to back up your expectations with real world observation.
What are the animals telling you through their behavior? Is it what you expected? Or is there something deeper that you haven’t considered yet?
Always strive to consider ALL the relevant factors together, and gradually with lots of practice, your predictions and interpretations will become more and more accurate.
Ask questions like:
- What is the weather you’re observing?
- How extreme is this weather?
- What animal are you trying to understand?
- What does it eat?
- Where does it sleep?
- What does it do in each season?
- How is this weather affecting the insects & plants?
- How does this weather affect the ability to see, hear & smell?
- How does this weather affect body temperature?
If you factor all these types of questions together within the context of real world observations, you can really start to make some fascinating discoveries about the wildlife in your local environment.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be ready to make some amazing discoveries about the animals and weather!