Robin on the frosted branches of a willow

12 Days of Winter Wildlife

Take a look out of your window – what wildlife can you see? Over the next 12 days we will be exploring local wildlife over the colder months, giving you some tops tips on how to support it, and also celebrating winter wildlife with sustainable crafts and more.

Catch up with our live launch of the 12 Days of Winter Wildlife that took place on our YouTube channel, and go on a virtual tour of the wildlife of the Botanic Garden, see winter wildlife in the Museum, and hear your questions answered in a live Q&A with winter wildlife expert Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology. Then get ready for a festive sing-along as we sing the 12 Days of Critters to a familiar tune: download the new words written by PhD student Kate Howlett here:

Pop-up hedgehog in a leaf pile craft

Scroll down for lots of wonderful winter wildlife information and activities. We have top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum, and templates and instructions to make your very own pop-up hedgehog in a leaf pile. You can also find links to all of the 12 Days of Winter Wildlife posts. These are filled with films, information about amazing animals, instructions and patterns to make festive gifts and decorations from recycled materials, and top tips to support the winter wildlife around you.

Be inspired by our winter wildlife tips and download our Winter Wildlife Spotter Sheet. Keep a look out for these animals throughout December – how many can you spot? Share pictures of your Winter Wildlife spots and creations with us on social media tagging us and using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online Community Gallery.

Winter wildlife spotter sheet first page preview

Winter Wildlife Top Tips

Want to find out more about winter wildlife? Staff and students of the Museum of Zoology share their top winter wildlife tips below:

Red fox and pheasants
Red fox and a pair of pheasants. (c) Jack Ashby

Jack Ashby, Assistant Director, writes:
In the UK red foxes are one of our most visible native mammals, particularly in winter when they can spend more time feeding in daylight (and are more obvious as their thick red winter coats stand out against the snow). They remain active throughout the year, and are in fact extremely adaptable creatures, so much so that they are one of the most widespread carnivores on earth – being native to most of Asia, Europe, North America and parts of North Africa. We may think animals have to be tough to go about their business during a British winter, but I’ve also watched them foraging in the deep snow of the High Himalayas. Here in the UK, foxes are particularly busy in winter – not just because they spend more time foraging for food (and they will eat pretty much anything they can find – this is why they are so successful at living alongside people in towns and cities), but also because this is when they mate. On winter nights, we may be lucky enough to hear the slightly disconcerting scream-like sounds of their mating calls.

Redwing and Fieldfare specimens on display in the Museum of Zoology
Redwing and fieldfare on display in the Museum of Zoology

Dr Andrew Bladon, Research Associate, writes:
I always look forward to the winter migrant birds arriving. Whilst our summer migrants (swallows, swifts, warblers) head off to spend the winter in Africa, we are joined by a host of species that breed further north – in Iceland or Scandinavia. These include many geese and wading birds, thrushes, finches and the very special waxwing. Perhaps the easiest to find are redwing and fieldfare. These two thrushes are related to blackbirds and song thrushes, and are a similar size, and can be found gorging themselves on berries in back gardens or along hedgerows. I love looking out for them on winter walks.

Peacock butterfly resting on grass
Peacock butterfly. (c) Andrew Bladon

Matt Hayes, Research Assistant, writes:
Winter may seem like a strange time to go out searching for butterflies but four of our longest-lived species overwinter in the UK as adults. These are the Brimstone, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma Butterflies, which survive by finding a cosy sheltered spot to avoid the worst of the cold. They often use outhouses such as sheds and garages to hunker down in and tend to find their way into the furthest, darkest corners high up on the ceiling. If you are careful not to disturb them, you can seek them out over winter and in the best spots may even see a group of adult butterflies huddled and roosting together.

Hedgehog in front of a hedgehog house
Hedgehog in front of a hedgehog house. (c) Matt Lowe

Matt Lowe, Collections Manager, writes:
Last year I built a wooden stand outside for our many potted herbs and (with some leftover wood) constructed a little integrated hedgehog house within it. Recently, as food left out for them has gone untouched, I’ve assumed the hogs have started to settle down for the winter. But they are restless sleepers, often rousing themselves for the occasional midwinter snack or even to relocate. After hearing shuffling noises behind the pots I’ve been leaving little piles of hay for bedding and food nearby, which has dutifully been removed by the morning – but I haven’t seen a hedgehog for a while. So I placed my trusted trailcam outside and was rewarded the next morning with a restless spiky critter popping out for a late night snack. So plan to give a hog a home next winter! 

Great tit feeding on a bird feeder
Great tit on the bird feeder. (c) Rosalyn Wade

Dr Roz Wade, Learning Officer, writes:
If you provide birds with food and a source of water, they will come. I live in a second floor flat, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to attract birds to my little balcony. But putting out bird feeders and a little bird bath, it took only a few days before some of the local birds found them. Sunflower seeds have been popular, the collared doves feeding from an open tray, blue tits and great tits from a bird feeder. Not a huge number of species, but it brings me joy watching them.  

Photograph of a cellar spider
Cellar Spider. (c) Michael Pashkevich

Michael Pashkevich, PhD Student, writes:
Oftentimes, I cannot bring myself to look for wildlife outside during wintertime. I tell myself, “It’s too dark… too cold… too rainy.” Fortunately, there are opportunities to engage with wildlife inside our cosy homes. One of my favourite in-house critters is the cellar spider. These — also called daddy long leg spiders (or, more accurately, Pholcus phalangioides) — live within our homes year round, and they are distinguishable from other house spiders by their long legs. The cellar spiders may not pay us rent, but they do pay us in other ways. For instance, the cellar spiders in my house trap and eat the pesky fruit flies that seem to magically appear from my waste bin. It’s also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, cellar spiders cannot harm humans with their bite. So, next time you find a cellar spider in your home, don’t panic and get rid of it! Instead, tell it “thank you!” for the services it provides, give it a toothy smile, and then carry on with your day. 

Spiders' webs - sheet webs on the left, orb web on the right
Spiders’ webs: sheet webs on the left and an orb web on the right. (c) Edgar Turner

Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, writes:
One of the treats of a misty winter morning is seeing spider webs in your garden. I’m always amazed at how many there are! These can vary widely in form and you can even use their different shapes and structures to identify the spider that made them, at least to an extent. Two of the commonest types in my garden are orb-weavers and sheet webs, which I get dozens of on just one shrub! To find out more about identifying spider webs see the Natural History Museum website.

Magpie perched on the edge of a roof
Magpie. (c) John Howlett

Dr William Foster, Emeritus Curator of Insects, writes:
I love looking at Magpies in the winter. I have just been admiring a couple of them, scoffing some figs on a tree in my neighbour’s garden. In the cold grey fog, they have a sumptuous gleam. I love their strutting, cocky arrogance. If they were rare, we would travel miles just for a glimpse. Let them eat songbirds: disapproving of this is as ridiculous as condemning lions because they eat wildebeest.

Winter sky. (c) Tricia Harnett

Tricia Harnett, Marketing Assistant, writes:
Since March I have tried to get out each day for a walk, sometimes it’s only 30 mins, but it’s a great start to the day and helps me to think about the day ahead, and what my priorities are. I have found that, especially this year, it’s easy to worry about things that we cannot change – so for me getting outside and looking around at nature is very calming. I particularly enjoy looking up at the sky, and am continually amazed by different cloud formations. I have a usual route, and have been taking photos throughout the different seasons. I try to capture any wildlife, but I haven’t been at all successful at that. By the time I have reached for my phone, the animal has scampered off or flown away. I have since concluded that it’s best to take the moment to look at the animal, rather than miss it by fumbling about for my phone. I have been lucky enough to see woodpeckers, goldfinches, black squirrels and earlier in the year I saw many swallows who were living in a barn on the nearby farm – they were beautifully noisy too. I expect they have moved to warmer climates by now.  

Winter Wildlife Crafts: Pop-up Hedgehog in a Leaf Pile

Make your very own pop-up hedgehog in a leaf pile inspired by the words to the 12 Days of Critters with this design and instructions from Museum Learning Assistant Sara Steele:

Hedgehog craft materials

You will need:
Paper for the hedgehog and leafpile
Thicker paper or card for the outside of your card
Coloured pencils
Tissue paper in a range of colours
Scissors
Glue

First, download the Hedgehog in a Leaf Pile template and print onto the thinner paper:

Hedgehog in a Leaf Pile template

Colour in your hedgehog pieces, and use tissue paper to decorate your leaf pile (the largest of the pieces). Cut out all four pieces.

Pop-up hedgehog in a leaf pile craft

Fold each piece along the midline, so that the decorated surface is on the outside for the hedgehog, but on the inside for the leaf pile.

Fold your thicker paper or card in half. Stick your hedgehog pieces and leaf pile into your card using the tabs, the smallest at the front, the pieces spaced out. Make sure that the fold for the leaf pile is in the opposite direction to the hedgehog pieces. You now have your own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Coming up over the rest of the 12 Days

Follow the links below to find even more festive fun, from top tips on making your own wildlife film on a budget on day 10, to listening to garden birds in winter on day 2, and upcycling an old t-shirt into a beautiful snowflake decoration on day 11.

Day 2: Garden Birds

Robin perched in a yew tree
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Garden Birds. Enjoy a wonderful film about attracting birds to your garden by Dr Andrew Bladon, listen to recordings of garden birds in winter by Dr Tony Fulford, and learn how to make seed cakes for birds with Lucy Williamson

Day 3: Active Insects

Completed moth craft as tree decoration
Moth decoration by Natasha Lavers

Catch up on Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Active Insects. In this post we explore the amazing world of moths that are active during the winter moths. Find out about moth-trapping with a film from moth expert Annette Shelford, discover winter moths and December moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes, and make your own moth decoration out or recycled fabric with Museum Volunteer Natasha Lavers.

Day 4: Life Underground

Woodlouse on wood chippings
(c) Max Westby CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Catch up on Day 4 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Life Underground. Join Dr Ed Turner, Curator of Insects, as he gives his top tips for creating a compost heap, and shows you some of the amazing animals that live there.

Day 5: Hibernation

Ladybirds in the crevices of a tree branch
(c) Tom Austin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We all know that hedgehogs hibernate, but did you know that there are insects that huddle away over winter? Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation and watch animals that hibernate from hedgehogs to frogs, find out about the insects that stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.

Day 6: Winter Mammals

Pair of red foxes
Red foxes

While some mammals hibernate, others are active over the colder months of the year. Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals and get under the skin of the Red Fox and Badger as Learning Officer Dr Roz Wade takes you on a guided tour of their skulls. Find out about the seal pups born in the middle winter on the Norfolk Coast with Dr Andrew Bladon, and watch Ellie Bladon explore the conservation of the hazel dormouse with her award-winning nature film. And download our food cache memory game to see if you have a memory as good as a squirrel’s.

Day 7: Winter Visitors

Waxwing with berries
Bohemian Waxwing

Catch up on Day 7 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Visitors and discover the birds that escape the extreme cold further north by migrating to the UK for winter. Read winter visitors profiles and and listen to recordings of their calls by Dr Tony Fulford. Take a virtual tour of the winter visitors on display in the Museum of Zoology, and get inspired to make sweet treats and wrap them sustainably as winter gifts.

Day 8: Healthy Habitats

Long grasses and trees at dusk
(c) Rosalyn Wade

From the tallest trees to the tiniest insects, nothing in our natural world lives in isolation. Catch up on Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Healthy Habitats and go on a virtual tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden to see some of the wildlife it supports. Find out about those unsung heroes of the garden – earthworms – and discover what it was about their behaviour that Darwin found so fascinating. And read top tips on how to make more sustainable food choices – comfort food that is comforting to you and the environment.

Day 9: Winter Water

Group of mallards and swans
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on day 9 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Water and watch some of the birds that live on and around the River Cam, from ducks and swans to herons and more. Discover and listen to amazing waterfowl with Dr Tony Fulford, find out about the importance of providing water for the wildlife in you garden, and catch up with the mini-pond created by museum staff earlier this year.

Day 10: Traces of Winter Wildlife

Finished wrapping paper with potato printed
Potato-printed wrapping paper

There are some animals that you might not see in winter, but they can leave evidence behind that they have been there. Catch up on day 10 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Traces of Winter Wildlife and discover the some of the traces animals leave behind, from footprints to owl pellets.Learn how to make a wildlife film on a budget with Ellie Bladon, find out about animal footprints, and create your own sustainable footprint wrapping paper.

Day 11: Surprising Winter Animals

Snowflake made from t-shirt yarn

Did you know that there are animals called snow fleas that hop over the surface of snow? Catch up on day 11 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Surprising Winter Wildlife. and find out about animals from around the world you might not expect to be able to cope with cold weather, and animals with some amazing adaptations to winter. Then learn how to upcycle an old t-shirt to make yarn, which you can use to make a crochet snowflake following our exclusive pattern for a unique decoration for gifts or for your home.

Day 12: 12 Days of Critters

Starling murmuration in the sky at sunset
(c) Tanya Hart CC BY-SA 2.0

This online festival has been all about the 12 Days of Critters – the rewriting of the festive favourite by PhD student Kate Howlett. Catch up on day 12 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: 12 Days of Critters to sing along with the 12 Days of Critters and find out about the animals in the song with staff, students and volunteers from the Museum. Finally, inspired by the 12th day of the song, learn how to make your own origami starling murmuration to decorate your home.

Robin on the frosted branches of a willow
Robin (c) John Howlett

12 thoughts on “12 Days of Winter Wildlife

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