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Blane Klemek column: Wild winter weather creates coping abilities

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My hunting trip to northwest Colorado's Rocky Mountains has become an annual event.

My three partners and I experienced a wide range of weather events during this year's late October mule deer and elk hunting trip. From a low temperature of five below zero to a high of around 60 degrees, to strong and gusty winds that knocked trees down, to sun, rain and heavy snow - indeed, in just 10 day's time, we nearly had it all.

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At over 8,500 feet above sea level, I observed from time to time individual American robins not only flying about, but singing, too. Hearing the beautiful springtime songs of male robins on a warm mountain evening gave me the bizarre and nostalgic feeling that it really was spring, and not the middle of autumn that it truly was.

Yet, during the most inclement days of blizzard-like conditions when the wind howled and the snow fell heavily, I was reminded once again about how well adapted and tenacious resident wildlife are. It amazes me when I think about how species of wildlife, especially those that stay behind while others, particularly most species of birds, migrate to warmer climates, manages to survive Mother Nature's extremes.

How long could you and I stand bare-footed in ice cold water, let alone swim, like waterfowl can do? Obviously we didn't evolve the necessary physiological and physical adaptations to cope with such harsh conditions, save for a superior brain that helped us to learn and adapt by providing us the necessary skills to build shelters and make clothing.

Nonetheless, when you see the diminutive chickadee feeding contentedly on sunflower seeds on a 30-degree-below-zero day, or a duck swimming on a stretch of open water in the dead of the winter, or a deer bedded down chewing its cud on the coldest of nights, one has to wonder how they do it and how they survive to live another day.

Many birds, of course, migrate to more suitable climates. On the other hand, some birds don't. Birds like black-capped, boreal and mountain chickadees survive cold winter nights by entering into states of semi-hibernation, which is correctly called "torpor." These birds' metabolic rate decreases and, with it, their energetic needs.

Deer, on the other hand, have a different strategy, although somewhat similar. Fawns quit growing by late fall. As well, the metabolism of both fawns and adult deer slow down. Aside from a thick winter coat that protects them against harsh weather, deer don't need as much food to survive during these lean times. They also adapt behaviorally by seeking out sheltered areas to escape cold winter winds that help minimize thermal heat loss. Additionally, deer feed only when they have to, during the warmest part of the day or adjacent to where they bed down.

Throughout parts of my recent mountain adventure, I concluded that my hunting partners and I were not acting much differently than the mule deer and elk were behaving during those inclement times when it snowed and blowed. Elk, arriving in droves from the High Country where the weather was probably even worse, were on the move, seeking food and shelter in the lower elevations and valleys. Meanwhile, mule deer were finding secluded areas out of the wind in heavy timber on mountain slopes and draws. And we human hunters? We retreated to the tent for warmth and food until the storm had passed.

Chickadees and other birds seek shelter too when confronted with bad weather. Sometimes several birds will "huddle" inside tree cavities or even bird houses to take advantage of both the shelter's ability to keep the cold out and each other's body temperatures. It's a relationship that benefits them all. Still, there are plenty of other tools under birds' belts that they can employ to do battle with severe weather.

The feathers of birds are designed to keep them warm. Waterfowl, like ducks and geese, are especially protected with not only thick and abundant feathers, but also fine, down feathers underlying the outer feathers for extra insulation. Furthermore, a layer of fat provides even more insulation in addition to an oil gland at the base of their tails that, during preening, is used to spread oil on the feathers to shed water. The oil is a necessary survival tool that helps keep ducks and geese warm and dry. Even birds' feet and the way the veins and arteries are arranged provide them the ability to withstand cold water and cold temperatures without needing extra feather coverings.

Some species of mammals, in order to either elude predators or be invisible to their prey, turn a different color during the winter months. Snowshoe hares and weasels turn snow white, except for the tips of the hares' ears and the tips of the weasels' tails. Both species' pelage changes to brown beginning in the spring and are as cryptic in the summer with their brown coats as they are in the winter landscape with their white coats. The snowshoe hare also grows dense fur on the pads of their front feet and oversized back feet. Not only does the fur enhance the hares' mobility in snow, the additional fur supplies greater insulation against the cold.

Soon enough here in northern Minnesota, the ponds and lakes will freeze and snow will be 'a-flying. Cold weather and how animals (and we) cope with it is an evolutionary story of all its own. Yet it's only part of what makes getting out and enjoying the great outdoors the wonderment it always is.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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