What’s flying: Temps will continue roller coaster ride

A black-capped chickadee looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Cold! If the thermometer had been an inch longer, we’d have frozen to death.” — Mark Twain

Pretty cold out there this week. Much of the human world here came to a screeching halt this past Wednesday as the wind chill temperatures dipped down into some serious double digits BELOW ZERO. There had been some fairly cold days before Wednesday and there some blizzard-like conditions created extremely hazardous situations, but the wind had been behaving itself and things weren’t too bad. But when the wind started whipping up that all changed. Schools and government offices closed. People were warned to stay in unless they absolutely had to go out, and then keep bundling up until no one could recognize you. Luckily temperatures are rising and there is a chance for some perfect, rainy? January weather in the next few days before it gets cold again.

So how do the birds cope with the current chill? Smallest birds have the biggest challenges. Chickadees, kinglets, house and goldfinches build up significant fat reserves to fuel metabolisms that may run at temperatures up to 106 F. High fat foods are often sought out during periods of extreme cold to maintain that metabolism. It is one of the reasons many bird feeders are very busy right after dawn as many of them are seeking that food to replace depleted fats.

Golden-crowned kinglets body temperatures are even higher at 110 F. They are even smaller than chickadees they are present, but not common in U.P. in winter. Their beaks are small and narrow, not suited for breaking apart and eating seeds. Bernd Heinrich, in his book, “Winter World,” discussed his fascination with this tiny songbird and its winter habits.

Curious to know what it ate, as a researcher was able to obtain state and federal permits to shoot several to study.

On one -30 F afternoon, at the end of a day of foraging, a kinglet was collected, had its temperature taken (44 C – 109.4 F) and the contents of its gizzard examined. It was full of geometrid moth larvae — caterpillars! There was little research to indicate caterpillars overwintered this way. The kinglets need to eat three times their own body weight in food every day to survive and are active nearly every moment of daylight during the short days in winter months.

Wind chills are important to birds too. Many will find food sources near cover, grab a morsel or berry and head in to break it apart, eat it or simply work on digestion. It is why feeders near cedar hedges or spruce and pine trees are popular and some feeders out in the open are not so busy on windy days. The cover near feeders is also valuable in the Marquette area now because of activity of northern shrikes also anxious to find a meal on these cold days. At least one shrike has been busy hunting on the east and north sides of Marquette this past week.

Feathers are also an important part of staying warm. They can be puffed out, creating more loft — a factor allowing air to be trapped between the birds bodies and the outermost feathers. The air adds an extra layer of insulation for the birds and can make them look more like round balls of feathers.

Nighttime can be even more challenging for birds as temperatures drop to even more dangerously low levels. While the actual sleeping habits of many birds are not entirely well-known, some, like chickadees spend their nights in cavities, like old woodpecker nests and can huddle together in groups to conserve and share heat. Larger birds, like grosbeaks, doves and robins may huddle together in thick conifers, again, out of the wind and snow. Ruffed grouse may burrow down into the snow and use its insulating benefits to help stay warm. Waterfowl and gulls use the heat emitted by open water to help keep them warm. With open water temperatures at the freezing point, it can be 20, 30 or even 40 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Special veins can reduce heat loss from unfeathered legs and feet cycling blood in different circuits to avoid rushing cold blood back to the body core. Tucking feet and legs into the abdominal body feather to warm them by day and heads can be tucked in during sleeping to do the same. Warm water from power plants can add to the temperature making those waters even more inviting to birds.

The cold weather has slowed the activity of both birds and birders this week. But there have still been some interesting observations. At least two red-headed woodpeckers have been seen in the U.P. recently. One showed up at feeders in Quinnesec and a second in Harvey has been around for at least six weeks. Both were at privates residences.

Great horned owls have also been very active. It is already nesting season for them. They have been heard calling as several sites in Marquette, and in Hancock, they have started nesting with two eggs already. At the Jutlila Center there at webcam is set up, https://video.nest.com/live/XDCy02n3xu, to watch the activity. It is not unusual for them to begin nesting in late winter, but even January is a bit early for the area. The temperatures will continue their roller coaster ride, so keep the feeders full and watch for some excitement where ever you are.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.