Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 17, 2020


"Winter warriors"

I have added a little fat over recent years, but I still chill easily. So when husband Art and I travel to his home state of Wisconsin over the New Year holiday, I prepare for the worst. Wisconsin weather at this time of year can be snowy, icy and bitterly cold, often reaching sub-zero temperatures. I fill one whole bag with long underwear, furry boots, a hat that covers my ears, warm mittens and scarves.

As it turned out, this year I was over-prepared. Appleton had very little precipitation, and temperatures were in the high 20s and 30s most of our week and a half there, and reached down to the teens only one night. Several of those days, it was colder at home than in Wisconsin!

But those preparations for my own comfort made me ponder how other living things stay warm in the winter. I know some have certain physical characteristics that make them well-suited to survive. Yet, when I see cattle or horses out in snow-covered fields or birds in bare trees or other animals wandering around outside, I wonder how they cope.

Our friend Jo acquired a donkey named Scotty about a year ago. Something spooked him after only about a week at her place and he took off for the hilly wooded area near her southwest Wisconsin farm. Although he was spotted off and on by neighbors and caught several times on trail cameras, he was on his own for nearly three months before she was able to coax him back home in the early spring. She worried about him because the temperatures were in the single digits or lower for extended periods and several snowstorms meant foraging opportunities were limited.

The farm girl in me understood livestock are well-adapted to cope, and several experienced farmers told Jo the same thing. Still, she was relieved when she brought him home and was able to provide a steady diet and a corral with a windbreak for him and his horse companion Sally.

But what about other living things? How do they survive bone-chilling cold?

It seemed as if someone had read my mind when Art mentioned his winter 2019 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources had a related article titled, "Masters of Mother Nature," by authors Christopher Tall and Kathryn A. Kahler. The article in the state's Department of Natural Resources quarterly magazine, was subtitled "Hardy Flora and Fauna Find Clever Ways to Endure Wisconsin's Winters."

Some of the methods mentioned I was familiar with and many involve making preparations before the arrival of cold weather. Gathering food in the fall and living in a den during the winter are examples. Bears dig or find a den and hibernate, recycling urine to use the nitrogen to conserves strength and muscle mass and promote healing. Deer have glands in their skin that produce oil to cover their coat and make it better able to repel water from melting snow. During the cold periods, they gather with other deer in stands of evergreen trees that provide shelter from wind and snow.

Birds are the animal we are most likely to see braving the cold and they have some ways of coping I was not familiar with:

* Ruffed grouse are known to "dive-bomb" headfirst into deep snow, working their way down until they're buried. The bird's body heat warms this shelter and it can stay in it for several days.

* Some birds have specialized beaks for prying seeds out of pine cones. Others huddle together for warmth, put on fat and extra downy feathers in the fall, shiver to generate warmth, and use holes in trees to roost at night.

* Ducks have a circulatory system that involves a heat exchanger. Heat is removed from the arteries leading to the exposed feet and use this heat to warm the cold returning blood before it heads to the heart. Only 5% of a duck's heat loss is through the feet. When it is very cold, they will stand on one foot, pulling the other into its feathers.

Although birds usually do fine on their own, humans can help boost birds' ability to survive. Jo had purchased eight 50-pound bags of bird seed and told us she had already used two of the bags. On our recent visit, I was entranced as I counted dozens of birds, including cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, sparrows, flickers and finches flitting from feeder to feeder and hanging on to the suet holder in her back yard.

However, others critters have some seriously unusual ways of coping with freezing temperatures.

* Some Wisconsin frogs, such as spring peepers and wood frogs, freeze solid during the winter.

... When temperatures start to fall, they insulate themselves in the leaf litter on the forest floor. As their body temperature drops to freezing, their metabolism first speeds up and produces a natural antifreeze, a type of sugar called glycol.

They gradually stop breathing, their hearts stop and brain waves cease. For all intents and purposes, they’re dead. Come spring, however, they thaw out and resume their lives ...

* A Goldenrod gall fly lays an egg in the stem of the plant which then grows around it. As the temperatures fall as winter approaches, it produces glycerol and sorbitol from the stored sugars. These substances serve as bug antifreeze, preventing cell damage.

* Trees also use the sugar-to-antifreeze approach. In addition, adding compounds to water lowers its freezing temperature. The trees and other plants do this in reverse. By losing water in their exposed parts, the percentage of other materials, such as sugars, in the sap rises, thereby reducing the freezing temperature.

So it appears we humans are the only ones that resort to long underwear, furry boots, hats, scarves or mittens to survive cold weather. But these "winter warriors," as the magazine called them, seem to have adapted better to the cold season than I have.


Left: Scotty and horse-friend Sally will weather winter together; Birds greatly benefit from the food provided by humans. Friend Jo's suet offering is visited by a red-headed woodpecker (top-center), while a cardinal rests in a nearby tree (top-right); With our eyes programmed to be drawn to moving objects, we may be inclined to forget that bushes (bottom-center) and trees (bottom-right) also need to adjust to survive during cold weather.



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