Trumpeter swans hanging out along the icy lakeshore. Photo by Dianne Bersea

Nature Wise: Chilling out is for the birds

It takes some special smarts to be comfortable in the cold

“At a hundred degrees below zero, he buttoned up his vest.”

That’s a line from a very silly song, The Frozen Logger, a logger who, despite some rather amazing coping strategies ultimately succumbs to the cold.

Hardy folk and nature know better. Last winter Skaha Lake froze from north to south end. This winter might produce similar results.

When it gets seriously cold I wonder how nature survives. It takes some special smarts to be comfortable in the cold, whether human, animal or bird. I shiver when I see Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, Canada Geese and huge rafts of ducks paddling about in the lake.

Amazingly, if they find enough food, their bodies can maintain life-sustaining temperatures for a long time. I’ve watched those dark little tugboat-like birds, the Coots, diving for weeds, then fending off waiting Mallard, Ring-neck and Canvasback Ducks who harry them for a snack.

Birds like Chickadees and Song Sparrows do well if they can find fatty seeds. This is where our seed trees and shrubs like Wild Rose, Oregon Grape, Elder Berry, Sumac, Mountain Ash and even the notorious invasive, Russian Olive, play an important role.

Backyard feeders make a big contribution too. When I walk along the Skaha KVR, one lakeside home is always alive with birds at the feeders provided. I’ve seen a Steller’s Jay, Red-Shafted Flickers, Song Sparrows and flocks of House Finches and even American Gold Finches. Good food is the key!

It’s not just about having enough to eat though, how about those skinny legs dangling in the freezing water?

What I wouldn’t give for nature’s clever solution — a system that uses warm blood from the heart to insulate the colder blood returning from those apparently unprotected legs. It’s a little like wrapping a cold water pipe with a hot water pipe heated by the furnace, in this case, the heart.

It has also worried me that swans remained around all through last winter’s lengthy cold. Then I discovered that swans can go into an inactive state that conserves energy and heat for long periods.

We’re all aware that bears and even squirrels hibernate to varying degrees. Rattlesnakes den up until temperatures rise again.

Many birds migrate to seek warmer temperatures, some travelling enormous distances. One of the tiniest, a Calliope Hummingbird is a champion long-distance migrant and may travel 9,000 kilometres annually. Butterflies and bees migrate, as do many of us!

Until the snow fell I watched beavers (busy-as-beavers) cutting saplings and even larger trees along the shore trail. They then tow the smaller branches to their den where they either stick them in the mud outside, or dragged the branches inside for a ready food source through the coldest winter months.

A typical den often houses an adult pair, a couple of recent kits, and maybe a yearling or two, for some nice cozy snuggle buddies! Body heat shared is a winter survived.

That’s a strategy that works for lots of other animals and birds. Chickadees are known to all tuck together in a tree cavity. Squirrels too.

In the Far North, some small birds can manufacture their own anti-freeze! This prevents their blood from forming ice crystals, a danger that could puncture cells and cause death.

If you are curious about other winter nature adaptations, I highly recommend renowned naturalist Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World, the Ingenuity of Animal Survival.

Although written a few years ago Winter World is as engaging as a thriller. I followed Bernd through many winter landscapes in his quest to discover nature’s capacity to survive, and find a tiny bird, the Golden-crowned Kinglet. It can endure -40 (Fahrenheit or Celsius) perhaps by utilizing the anti-freeze strategy mentioned above.

In an odd turn, it’s interesting to note that we humans need to alter our environment to survive. Animals and birds — the reverse may be true. Me, I’m going to tuck in, turn on the heat and, button up my vest.

Dianne Bersea is a member of the South Okanagan Naturalists Club. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent SONC. For info on meetings and events visit southokanagannature.com.

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