What do animals do all winter?
The adults, of course, spend a lot of time thinking about what to do with the young when it's too cold to push them out of the lair to play. Probably they send them to "people centers" to listen to stories about what people do in winter and even to pat a captive human or two.
At Rock Creek Nature Center, however, the snowshoe is on the other paw. Every Saturday at 4, naturalist Vanessa Molineaux regales humans from three to six years old with true stories and slide shows about how animals spend the cold months.
Chipmunks, Monineaux tells the kids, have the good sense to sleep all winter.
"Just before winter, chipmunks eat three or four hundred acorns each day. Then they can live on their fat all winter," she says.
"Fire is fat," offers a member of the audience.
"What kind of an animal is Fire?" asks Molineaux.
"He's not an animal," replies the child. "He's my dog."
Many birds, who are even more sensible than chipmunks, go south for the duration. "But a lot stay here," says Molineaux. "They're winter birds. Where do you think the butterflies go?"
The consensus is that they go south, too. "But some are winter butterflies," pipes up a little girl.
"Well, many die when the cold comes," Molineaux tells the group. There is a very brief period of mourning before the subject changes to frogs who spend the winter deep in the mud, and bark beetles who take shelter under tree bark, and ptarmigans who have feathers on their feet to make walking on snow easier, and catfish who keep on swimming.
"My daddy caught a fish once a long time ago" reveals one boy.
When the story and slides are over, Molineaux has a surprise for the kids. It's in a big box and it's clawing at the screen trying to get out.
Molineaux is holding a carrot, which prompts one kid to guess that the mystery guest must be Bugs Bunny.
"Bugs Bunny isn't the only one who eats carrots," counters Molineaux. "Don't you eat carrots?"
The mysterious carrot-eater turns out to be Martha the Groundhog, an animal whose brain was injured in a car accident and who couldn't survive in the wild. Martha, however, is savvy enough to grab the carrot in her paws and munch on it, ignoring the onlookers.
"Can I hold her?" asks one eager child.
"No," answers the naturalist, although she does let the kids pat Martha on the back. "See her long fingernails - she might scratch you. In the wild, groundhogs use their long fingernails to dig holes in the ground where they sleep all winter. But it's about 80 degrees in the building, so Martha doesn't know it's winter. If she did, she'd eat all the lettuce and the carrots she could in one day. She'd probably weight about 30 pounds. You look like you weigh about 30 pounds," Molineaux says to a little girl.
"I'm four," the girl corrects her.
When Martha goes back to her quarters, the kids put on their snowsuits and boots and go outside to blow on milkweed pods, watch the squirrels scurrying to build nests, and look at the tiny track birds make in the snow.
"Hey, look, we're making tracks," shouts one little boy as the group treks through the snow.
If you can't fly south and you don't want to eat 400 acorns and sack out for the winter, the next best ting is to take your kids and make tracks for Rock Creek Nature Center.