As we gathered around the family room, playing card games and typical family shenanigans, on New Year’s Eve, every channel on TV showed the celebrations in New York with the TV anchors seeming to only discuss how cold the weather was. Temperatures were hovering near 0 degrees in New York, yet where I was in Grand Forks, the temperatures were near -15 with -35 to -40 wind chills .... New Yorkers, you have nothing on North Dakotans.
When temperatures of mid-winter start dropping to the zero mark, my mind slips to wondering why we live here, where we get cold temperatures and snow for nearly six months of the year. I think, maybe we are crazy. We take a major risk by living in this frozen landscape, but we have great comforts that allow us to live in warmth in our homes. We trust and hope that our power will stay on and that our furnaces run to provide this warmth.
A huge thank you must go to those providing energy to keep the warmth. Gets me back to thinking again “why” do we live here. My thoughts then drift to warmer days of spring and summer with green grass between our toes, birds chirping and calling in the fields around us, lakes and streams teaming with fish and the sights and sounds of a good thunderstorm dropping much-needed rain. These are the reasons I live here and call North Dakota home.
With these cold temperatures, my mind drifts to thoughts of these creatures that call this frozen prairie home. The birds amaze me. These small critters have many superb adaptations that allow them to survive in the most frigid conditions. Birds are warm-blooded animals that have a much higher metabolism, and thus higher body temperatures, than humans. An average bird’s body temerature is 105 degrees. Body temperatures can fluctuate during the day, depending on climate and activity.
Some physical adaptations that birds possess include feathers, specialized legs and feet, and fat.
• Feathers: Feathers provide remarkable insulation and many birds grow extra feathers as part of a late fall molt to give them thicker protection. The oil that coats birds’ feathers also provides insulation as well as waterproofing.
• Legs and feet: Birds’ legs and feet are covered with special scales that minimize heat loss. Birds also can control the temperature of the legs and feet separately from the body by constricting blood flow to their extremities, thereby reducing heat loss.
• Fat reserves: Birds build up fat reserves to function as insulation and extra energy for generating body heat. They gorge themselves in the fall, giving them an extra fatty layer before winter.
Some behaviorial adaptations include fluffing, tucking, sunning, shivering and roosting.
• Fluffing: Birds fluff out their feathers to create air pockets for additional insulation.
• Tucking: Birds will stand on one leg or crouch to cover both legs. They will also tuck the bills into their feathers for protection and to breathe air that’s been warmed from their body heat.
• Sunning: Birds will take advantage of solar heat on sunny days. They will turn their backs to the sun, thereby exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat and will raise their feathers slightly. This allows the sun to heat their skin.
• Shivering: Birds will shiver to raise their metabolic rate and generate more body heat as a short-term solution against extreme cold.
• Roosting: Many birds gather in large flocks at night and will crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat. Individual birds choose roost spots that may have residual heat from the day’s sunlight, such as close to the trunk of a tree or near any dark surface.
Another unique adaptation that some birds utilize to survive northern winters is torpor. Many birds enter torpor to conserve energy during cold winter nights. Torpor is a state of reduced metabolism when the body temperature is lowered, therefore requiring fewer calories to maintain the proper heat. Most birds can lower their body temp by a few degrees, but torpid birds can lower their body temp by as much as 50 degrees. Torpor can be dangerous, however, as the reduced temperature also leads to slower reactions and greater vulnerability to predators.
The recent cold snap makes me think we are crazy for living here and that wildlife have developed some incredible adaptations to live and thrive here in this state with extreme weather conditions.