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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - It's Cold Outside

Winter is really here, and more forcefully than it has been in quite a while. For those of us with warm homes to retreat into, it can be a magical adventure to take a brisk walk or ski in the snow.

I love the crunch of fresh snow when it’s too cold to melt even a little. In my book, 5to 15 degrees F is perfect, particularly if there’s no wind. But even when it’s colder than that, if you dress in warm layers with wool socks and boots, keep your ears covered and hands warm, it can still be fun to be outside. (Most of this was written on Friday, when it was cold, but not as severe as it has been today, Sunday, and will be when this is published. I know that the cold can be life-threatening for humans, too, and “fun” is not the first word most people think of, especially if they are obligated to be outdoors, such as emergency personnel, farmers with livestock to care for, and those who are required to get somewhere on drifted roads.)

The birds have been busy at my feeders with this cold air. The squirrels relish the corn I’ve been putting out, but unfortunately there’s a lot of competition for that. The blue jays like it, too, but the real corn connoisseur is the deer. Yesterday they stayed back a respectful 20 feet or so and watched me warily as I filled the trough, but they had inhaled most of it by the time I got back inside.

Some little bird, probably a junco, has been roosting on the Christmas wreath on my front door. When my husband goes out in the morning to rescue the newspaper from the driveway, he has been greeted by a flurry of feathers as the poor guy flees his now moving roost. I have banned paper picking up until after daylight for the duration of this cold snap. There’s a nice spruce next to the front door that is quite snow capped at present. I would think that might make a nice roost, too, and it doesn’t move.

On my walk this morning I wanted to take a picture of the river with the undisturbed snow on its banks, but the cold got to my camera battery before I got to the river. The river was steaming, and all the weeds on the banks were covered in a layer of frost. With the blue sky and all the sunshine it would have made a spectacular picture.

How does wildlife survive these extreme temperatures? Some don’t. Some survive in even harsher climates, but those that are local may be faced with extremes they aren’t prepared for. In his book Winter World, Bernd Heinrich explains many of the survival strategies of animals. Some birds huddle together to share their body heat, as do flying squirrels. Lots of animals spend the night in hollow trees. Some animals don’t hibernate in the classical sense of sleeping through winter, but rather go into torpor on a nightly basis. Chipmunks stay in their burrows where they have stashed their food supplies, but they go into a state of torpor to conserve energy if their food supplies run low.

For some creatures like mice the snow is actually a blessing because it acts as insulation and they are somewhat safer moving around under the snow, although it is said that a great gray owl can detect a meadow vole moving under the snow from over 30 yards away.

Toads bury themselves underground and then continue to dig deeper during hibernation as the frost penetrates the ground.

The most surprising adaptation I read about was the frogs that can be frozen and survive. This is true for the wood frog, gray tree frog, chorus frog, and spring peeper. Ice forms in the body cavity and in the spaces between the cells, but there is no ice formation within the cells themselves. They are able to withstand freezing due to chemical changes in their bodies when the temperatures drop. Their cells produce their own anti-freeze! (If ice does form inside the cells, they do not survive.) “Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead. But it is prepared to revive at a later date.”

Stay warm this week, be careful, keep your feeders full if you can, and I hope you are able to find something to enjoy in this arctic blast.