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Junior Winter Garden Detectives

Mary Gadek, Master Gardener

Do you know a child who has wondered where all the garden creatures live in the winter in Minnesota? Help that child become a Junior Winter Garden Detective by gathering clues, using some scientific techniques and then searching outside to solve this chilly mystery.

Junior Winter Garden Detectives


Do you know a child who has wondered where all the garden creatures live in the winter in Minnesota? Help that child become a Junior Winter Garden Detective by gathering clues, using some scientific techniques and then searching outside to solve this chilly mystery.

NOTE: Adults can help guide, or work together with, their child through this project. Utilize the books mentioned later in this article to reinforce the information from this article and to assist younger children in learning the concepts. 

Junior Winter Garden Detectives - Let’s find out where birds, common Minnesota animals, turtles, frogs and insects live in Minnesota winters. Some creatures migrate, or move, to a warmer part of the world in late summer or fall. Many others remain here in Minnesota. But, where are they all? Often, they are not so easy to see.  By READING the clues from the information below, you will be able to solve the case of the hiding winter creatures by looking in your own backyard or neighborhood park.


BIRDS - When the cold and wind of a Minnesota winter settles in, watch for birds to make a roost and group together in the holes of trees, next to trees or a thicket of pines. Insect eating birds fly South for the winter so they can eat insects from open water in warmer climates. The remaining birds can survive on the seeds, berries and garden waste found in our yards and parks during the cold weather. Sometimes people leave seed in bird feeders to help these birds survive during the cold days. Just like humans, birds keep warm with their down coat; that is, their feathers. Some common Minnesota winter birds are cardinals, finches, blue jays and woodpeckers. 

DEER AND SQUIRRELS - Look around and you will see many animals, including deer and squirrels, in your local landscape. Deer stay active and hang out by stands, or groups, of pine trees. These trees, called conifers, keep their needles all year round so snow can easily collect on their branches and keeps the forest floor warm and dry underneath for a cozy gathering spot. The common gray squirrel can be seen occasionally popping out from their nests in tree cavities or leaf and piles collected from trees in the fall and thickened by moss. You can view the squirrels scampering around nearby their nests to retrieve the food they hoarded in the fall, foraging on pine cone seeds, or stealing from the bird feeder in your yard.

TURTLES AND FROGS - Keep a sharp eye open for turtles hibernating, or sleeping all winter, at the bottom of a pond or lake, digging themselves into the mud of the water's bottom, where the temperature stays warmer and more stable than up at the top of the water's surface. Frogs can be found in two different areas, depending on the type: 1. Aquatic frogs hibernate in the water near the bottom of the stream or pond where they breathe oxygen from the water through their skin; and, 2. Tree and wood frogs become dormant under leaves and plants from the past growing season in our garden and then freeze solid for the winter months. These frogs’ bodies use a special process where a natural antifreeze, called glycerol, keeps their organs from fully freezing. Carefully look under some leaf piles and you might see a frog that looks dead but really is just temporarily frozen. How is this possible?! All good detectives verify their clues--see below for more information on this special antifreeze process.

INSECTS - Minnesota insects survive winter by migrating, by tolerating the cold or by avoiding the cold. Monarch butterflies migrate 3,000 miles to the warm south. The Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar tolerates the cold by becoming dormant underneath leaf litter and a blanket of snow, similar to the tree and wood frogs, after producing special antifreeze called glycerol, which keeps its cells from bursting when they freeze. (See the scientific process below). Bees hibernate in winter in one of three ways: in the ground, in flower stem cavities or, for bumble bee Queens, under leaves and brush. Most bees in Minnesota are ground nesters who burrow into bare soil to stay warm in winter and lay eggs for spring. Look for a small ¼-½ hole for a tunnel in the soil without a lot of plant cover to get a glimpse of where a bee might be in its winter slumber. You will need to wait until spring before you see a bee emerge! Some other bees take winter shelter and lay eggs in the hollow of flower stems. A garden left for a spring cleanup, instead of in the fall, will reveal hollow stems where flowers once were. Imagine bees and their eggs resting, safe from the harsh winter conditions. Bumble bee queens prefer to tuck into leaves or brush left in the garden, often near pollinator plants. The workers have died in the fall, while the Queens are left to start new colonies in the spring.


READ these children’s books to do additional detective work with your child to see how creatures live in winters.

Winter Dance by Marion Dane Bauer, tells about a red fox's discovery of how to live in the winter while learning about what some other creatures do for homes in the winter.  Available at the Dakota County libraries. ISBN: 9780544313347 or, buy at Amazon

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and art by Christopher Silas Neal, takes you along a cross country ski family adventure to what creatures are out and about in the winter. Available at Dakota County library. ISBN: 9780811867849, or buy through Amazon



Once you gather all your clues, every good detective verifies the clues. Our clues show an amazing antifreeze process for tree and wood frogs and the banded woolly bear caterpillar, which allows these critters to live in the Minnesota winter. Using your detective skills, let’s do the following experiment to see what the antifreeze is like in the frogs and caterpillars.


Any Gelatin

Hot water from tap (not boiling), amount used in gelatin instructions 

Small paper cups (or small ziplock bags)



  1. Follow the instructions to prepare the gelatin, but using warm water (not boiling).

  2. Fill a paper cup with about 1 tablespoon of the prepared gelatin.

  3. Put the cup in the freezer for about 20 minutes. (The antifreeze process for frogs occurs in about 20 minutes). When the time has elapsed, take the cup out of the freezer. 

You will notice the gelatin is part frozen, part liquid. The mixture is similar to the liquid in the organs of these creatures that stays cold but not frozen so they can survive being dormant in the winter.


The last step for Junior Winter Garden Detectives is to find the animals or their homes outside! Put on your winter boots or snowshoes and go search to solve the case. Make notes on the checklist provided below or make a photo journal of the winter garden homes you find. 


Check off the creatures you see outside. For the critters that go dormant, use your imagination and find a spot that might be their winter home. Note: Since they are trying to stay warm, it might take a few visits outside before you complete the list. Optional: list where you see them or take a photograph. 


2. Deer

3. Squirrels

4. Turtles 

5. Aquatic Frogs

6. Tree and wood frog

7. Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar

8. Bees- 

A. Ground Nester

B. Flower Stem Cavities

C. Bumble Bee Queens


How Do Critters Survive Minnesota Winters

How Evergreens Provide a Winter Oasis for Wildlife

Common Winter Birds in Central Minnesota

How Do Frogs Survive Winter? Why Don't They Freeze to Death?

Woolly Bears in the Snow

Give Bees a Chance: Fall Cleanup for Pollinators

Minnesota Master Naturalist Explorers Winter Curriculum

Photo credits: Mary Gadek (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9), Donald Lorr (8)

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