For an illustrated version, see pages 13-14 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 4.
Folktale: Why Bear Sleeps All Winter
In the autumn, Black Bear was very hungry. All summer she had eaten whatever she could find: berries, honey, fish, crab apples, even earthworms! But as winter approached, she needed more and more food to build a layer of insulating fat under her fur.
Black Bear got so hungry that she raided the squirrels' hidden stashes of acorns. She took the pumpkins and ears of corn that Rabbit had swiped from the humans' fields. Every time Rabbit tried to collect some food for winter, Black Bear followed her and ate up the food. She even climbed into Rabbit's hollow log house, ate up the food Rabbit had stored there, and then curled up in the log to take a nap.
Rabbit felt helpless. "How can I stop Black Bear? She's big and I'm small."
But the other animals had an idea. "Let's close up the end of the log with Black Bear inside!"
Mole, remembering the stolen earthworms, brought rocks.
Squirrel, remembering the stolen acorns, brought leaves.
Frog, remembering the stolen fish, brought mud to serve as cement.
Together they piled these materials into the open end of the log. Rabbit tamped it all in firmly with his big back feet.
When Black Bear woke from her little nap, she saw no light. "I guess I napped until night time! I may as well sleep again until morning."
But every time she woke, it was still dark. Warm and comfortable, she fell back to sleep.
Meanwhile, Rabbit found a new home and stored up enough food for the winter.
Black Bear kept sleeping and waking until finally she heard bird songs. Melting snow and winter rain had weakend the mud cement. She easily pushed aside the rocks and leaves.
Black Bear stretched and looked around. Spring had come! "I slept the winter away," she thought. "That was a good idea. From now on, that's what I'll do." And so it has been.
Technically bears do not "hibernate" but can go into "torpor."
A truly hibernating animal's body temperature drops as low as outside. Their heart and breathing rates slow down extremely, and they can't wake up when disturbed.
A torpid bear's heart rate slows down but she keeps a fairly high body temperature and can wake up quickly. Mother bears can even give birth and nurse their babies during their torpor! Although bears can go into torpor for as much as 6 months, not eating or drinking all that time, they only do it if they live in really cold places.
Both hibernation and torpor save these animals a lot of energy.
Oklahoma's winters can flip from spring-like mild spells to hard below-zero freezes. That makes it difficult for animals to adjust. Can they risk becoming inactive for a long time if the weather might have let them go out finding food? Here are some animals that try different strategies.
Wood frogs can hibernate so deeply that they completely stop breathing, their blood freezes, and their hearts stop. They certainly look dead! But when they defrost, they're as good as new.
Bats are also true hibernators, with heart rates dropping from 400 to 25 beats per minute and breathing very slow. Solo or in groups, they hibernate in caves or isolated spots where they won't be disturbed.
While white-tailed prairie dogs truly hibernate, the black-tailed species just goes torpid for days at a time and rarely hibernates unless conditions get extremely cold.
Families of skunks or raccoons hole up in their dens and experience torpor during the cold months, rousing occasionally to go out hunting for snacks.
Nocturnal deer mice also hole up with relatives, sharing warmth and sleeping through cold days but hunting food outside at night.
Folktale: Motif A2481.1 Why Bears Hibernate has been found in stories of the Nez Percé nation and also among North Carolina African American folk tellers.