Startling murmuration in the sky at sunset

12 Days of Winter Wildlife: 12 Days of Critters

Throughout this week we have been sharing some amazing winter wildlife with you, and today we have joined this all up as our 12 Days of Critters. Why not download the song sheet and sing along with your new festive favourite:

Find out about the 12 critters, and scroll down to learn how to make your own origami starling murmuration to decorate your home.

Winter Wildlife: The 12 Critters

Find out about the animals that feature in the song, and scroll down to the end of the post for instructions on how to make your own origami flock of starlings:

Day 1: A Hedgehog in a Leaf Pile with Assistant Director Jack Ashby

Black and white image of a hedgehog foraging
Hedgehog (c) Sara Steele

There is a sheet of muscle that rolls them into a ball to protect the bits without spines. 5000 spines, each has its own muscle to stand it on end, but when they roll into a ball, then can be erected all at once. They eat whatever they can, including insects, slugs, snails worms, berries, eggs, small mammals, frogs and dead animals. In colder areas, European hedgehogs build up a supply of fat to keep them insulated and as a store of energy, and spend the winter hibernating in nests, and wake up every week or two to find food and go to the toilet.

Visit our first blog post of the 12 Days of Winter Wildlife for instructions on how to make your very own pop-up hedgehog in a leaf pile.

Day 2: Two Garden Birds with Museum Volunteer Eleanor Miller

Robin feeding on a fat block
Robin (c) Sara Steele

Our garden birds have many different strategies or ways of surviving the winter. Take the robin, with its red breast. These colours are seen in both males and females. At this time of year they are both singing to defend territories, making sure they get enough food to eat over the winter months. Other species, however, survive the winter by being more sociable. For example, the long-tailed tit will move around in family flocks, looking for food together, keeping a look out for predators, and roosting together for warmth.

Visit Day 2 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife for more information about garden birds, top tips on attracting birds to your green space, and a recipe for a seed cake for our feathered friends.

Day 3: Three Winter Moths with Research Assistant Matt Hayes

Winter moth resting
Winter moth (c) Ben Sale CC BY 2.0

Winter moths are one of a few species of insect that can fly in temperatures close to freezing and can survive cold weather as an active adult. Most butterflies and moths overwinter as caterpillars or pupae and hunker down to avoid  the coldest part of the year. Even species that do overwinter as adults tend to hide away in sheltered outhouses and remain dormant, but as always in nature there are exceptions to the rules. Winter moths can shiver to release heat and raise their body temperature and are well insulated to retain the heat they produce. Other moths can also shiver, but the winter moth uses this and other adaptations to power their flight muscles when other species of insect can’t.

Visit Day 3 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife posts for more information about winter moths, find out how to go moth trapping, and create your own moth decoration out of recycled fabrics.

Day 4: Four Compost Creatures with Curator of Insects Dr Ed Turner

Snails on leaf litter
Compost creatures (c) Sara Steele

If you look under the leaf litter or in a compost heap in your garden you will find that
it is crawling with life. You could see insects, centipedes, woodlice and many other minibeasts. These animals include predators, herbivores and decomposers – creatures that do lots of important jobs that help our habitats to function.

Find out more about life underground with Dr Ed Turner on Day 4 of our 12 Das of Winter Wildlife blog posts, and get top tips on creating your own compost heap.

Day 5: Five Ladybirds with Museum Volunteer Saptarsi Ghosh

Ladybird on a leaf
Ladybird (c) Sara Steele

It is quite common to see groups of ladybirds huddled together in late autumn and early winter as temperatures begin to drop. At this time of year ladybird food sources such as aphids are dwindling and freezing temperatures pose them a threat. Therefore, the adult ladybirds seek out warm, sheltered locations to hunker down and see out the coldest part of the year.

Vist Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts for more information about animals that hibernate through the winter, and learn how to create your own insect hotel.

Day 6: Six Foes Foraging with Museum Volunteer Sam Ruggiero-Cakir

Fox (c) Alex Mourant and Holly Morrison

Red foxes can be found across the northern hemisphere – in Europe, Asia and North America, as well as parts of North Africa. Red foxes are highly adaptable. They are as at home in urban environments as in the countryside, having found ways to feed on our leftovers and scraps. Urban foxes are quite used to people, so you are more likely to see a fox in a town or city than a more reclusive rural fox. Although they are general nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk), you can sometimes see foxes in the daytime as well. Foxes remain active during the winter months, and even if you don’t see one you might hear one. Male foxes (called dogs) tend to bark, but females (called vixens) make an eerie screeching sound. 

Find out more about foxes and other British mammals on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts, and download our caching game to see if your memory is as good as a squirrel’s.

Day 7: Seven Redwings Feeding with PhD Student Alex Howard

Redwing specimen in the Museum of Zoology
Redwing specimen in the Museum

You may think it’s cold in the UK, but our winters are relatively mild for how far north we are. Redwings migrate to the UK in the winter, from their northern breeding territories in Scandinavia and Iceland. The migration flight from the Scandinavian coast is 800km across the North Sea, all done in a single journey. The UK wintering population is around 8.6 million birds. Most birds will fly back north in the spring, but a few pairs have been recorded as breeding in Scotland.

Visit Day 7 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts and discover more birds that visit Britain over the winter months, and make sustainable sweet treats for your friends and family.

Day 8: Eight Worms a Wriggling with Learning Assistant Sara Steele

Earthworm (c) Sara Steele

The earthworm can often be overlooked, especially as it spends most of its life under the soil, but it actually plays an essential role in the environment and has a big impact on the world above-ground too. The worm’s subterranean lifestyle can make it a gardener’s best friend. As they move through the soil, they help to churn it up, introducing airflow, recycling the nutrients and enriching the soil by breaking down decaying plant matter. They can also become food for other animals such as birds, toads, beetles, badgers, and hedgehogs! You can help the worms in your green space by creating compost heaps and reducing hard surfacing like paving where possible. We have 29 different species of worms in the UK and every little bit we do can enable the worm to enrich the world around us.

Visit Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts for more information about the unsung heroes of our habitats, and top tips on choosing comfort foods that are comforting to the environment as well.

Day 9: Nine Geese Migrating with PhD Student Kate Howlett

Greylag goose specimen in the Museum of Zoology
Greylag goose in the Museum of Zoology

There are nine species of goose that we can see here in the UK. Six of these migrate here over the winter to avoid the harsh winter weather further north in places like Siberia, Greenland and Svalbard. These migrating species are the Tundra bean goose and the Taiga bean goose (both of which are quite dark brown with orange legs), the pink-footed goose (which has a pink bill and pink legs), the white-fronted goose (which has orange legs and a white flash on its forehead), the Barnacle goose (which is black and white and quite small) and the Brent goose (which is also black and white, but is our smallest UK species at just larger than a mallard duck). The specimen in the picture is a greylag goose, which you can see all year round in the UK. It’s our most common native species with pink legs and a smart orange bill. If you go out to a nature reserve over the winter months, keep your eyes peeled to see if you can spot any of our six migrating winter goose residents!

Visit Day 9 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts for more water birds, from ducks and swans to moorhens and herons, and be inspired to create your own pond or bird bath in your garden.

Day 10: Ten Deer a Trekking with PhD Student Michael Pashkevich

Red deer in a field
Red Deer

The red deer is the largest species of deer in the UK, and our biggest land mammal with stags weighing up to 190kg. In winter, they grow a thick brown coat to keep them warm. They shed this before the summer, rubbing up against rocks to remove the extra fur. The summer coat is the rusty red colour that gives these deer their name.

Find out more about the traces of winter wildlife, from footprints to poo, on Day 10 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog posts. Turn your hand to creating your own wildlife film, and make your own sustainable printed wrapping paper.

Day 11: Eleven Snow Fleas Jumping with Museum Volunteer Izzy Woodcock

Snow flea on a twig
Snow flea (c) Brian Eversham

Snow fleas aren’t fleas at all, but a type of insect called a scorpion fly. They are small though, at only 5mm in length. The adults are active in the winter. and although they can’t fly they can jump up to 5cm – quite a distance for something so tiny! If you want to find one yourself, have a search in moss over winter.

Discover more surprising winter animals on Day 11 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife blog post, and learn how to upcycle an old t-shirt into a crochet snowflake decoration.

Day 12: Twelve Starlings Flocking with Collections Manager Matt Lowe

Starling murmuration at dusk
Starling murmuration
(c) Andrew Bladon

The iridescence of a starling on a sunny day is beautiful when you see one on a garden feeder but if you’re lucky enough to spot one, this is one of the best times of year to see (and hear) one of the UK’s natural wonders – a starling murmuration. Just before dusk hundreds to tens of thousands of starlings may gather above a communal nesting site to form a perfectly coordinated twisting cloud that dances across the fading sky. Whilst mesmerising to us, these huge flocks may help confuse predatory birds and communal roosting may help conserve heat on cold nights. But we actually have more starlings in the UK in the winter than any other time of year – resident bird numbers are bolstered by northern European populations. But don’t resent them massing on your bird feeders, overall their numbers are in decline.

Winter Craft: Starling Murmuration Decoration

Inspired by the 12th animal in the song, create your own origami starling murmuration. Learning Officer Roz Wade writes:

Origami starling decoration
Origami starling decoration

You will need:
Old magazines
Pencil or pen
Twig or ribbon
Needle and thread

1. Cut out 12 squares, each one 10cm by 10cm, from old magazines. To make your origami birds looks like starlings, chose dark images with white text to mimic the patterns of their feathers.
2. Follow the instructions to make a traditional flapping bird in origami to create 12 starlings from the magazine squares.

Lacing origami starling with thread

3. Using a needle, take a piece of thread through the point in the middle of the back of your starling.
4. Tie the threads of your starlings to a twig, or sew to a ribbon to make a garland. Remember to have the threads at different lengths to create the pattern of a murmuration. 

12 Days of Winter Wildlife catch up:

Robin on frosted willow branches
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on Day 1 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife. Watch the livestreamed launch, including a virtual tour of the wildlife in the Botanic Garden, a Q&A with Rob Jaques of the British Trust for Ornithology, and sing along with the premiere of the 12 Days of Critters song. Read the top winter wildlife tips from staff and students at the Museum of Zoology. Download our Winter Wildlife spotter sheet, and create your very own hedgehog in a leaf pile.

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.

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.

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.

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

Catch up on Day 5 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Hibernation. Find out about the insects that huddle away and stay dormant over winter with Matt Hayes, and create your own insect refuge for the garden with Sara Steele.

Pair of red foxes
Red foxes

Catch up on Day 6 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Mammals. 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.

Waxwing with berries

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.

Long grasses and trees at dusk
Wicken Fen (c) Rosalyn Wade

Catch up on Day 8 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Healthy Habitats. Go on a virtual tour of Cambridge University Botanic Garden and 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 as well as to the environment.

Group of mallards and swans
(c) John Howlett

Catch up on day 9 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Winter Water. Discover the birds that live on and around water, from ducks and swans to herons and more. 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.

Finished wrapping paper with potato printed
Potato-printed wrapping paper

Catch up on day 10 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Traces of Winter Wildlife. Discover the some of the evidence animals leave behind, from footprints to owl pellets. Be inspired to create your own wildlife film with Ellie Bladon, and learn how to make your own sustainable, potato-printed wrapping paper.

Catch up on day 11 of our 12 Days of Winter Wildlife: Surprising Winter Wildlife. 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. Learn how to upcycle an old t-shirt into yarn, which you can use to make a crochet snowflake following our exclusive pattern for a unique decoration for gifts or for your home.

And remember to send your winter wildlife spots and creations to us by tagging us on social media or using #12DaysofWinterWildlife and you could feature in our online community gallery.

Startling murmuration in the sky at sunset
(c) Tanya Hart CC BY-Sa 2.0

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