As I sat in front of the fireplace last weekend and listened to winds gusting in a 2-degree day, I tried to imagine what it was like to live in Missouri 4,000 years ago. Using a rock shelter may have cut some of the wind, but that frigid air would have been tough. You imagine wood fires—sure they’d be gathered around them. But then you think…no chainsaws, no metal tools to get those tidy logs. And then you think about the food that you’d have had to gather or catch. And you wouldn’t have those nice warm boots to face the elements. Most of us are really wimps now in comparison—or at least a lot more comfortable.
Then I looked outside at the birds gathered at the feeders: bluejays, cardinals, finches. No culture comforts for them. They’ve been making it (or not) through winters as they always have. I called Brad Jacobs, one of our bird experts, today for some ideas on how the birds do it.
“They maintain core body temperatures by having most of their blood flowing under their feathers where their muscles are. The legs are mostly ligaments and bone so there’s less to freeze and it needs less blood flow. In the Arctic where it’s really cold, birds like rough-legged hawks have feathers down their legs.”
“The truth is that birds that overwinter in Missouri tend to have more young since they’re more likely to lose some to winter. Birds that migrate to the tropics, in contrast, might lay four eggs versus six to eight for a bird like a chickadee."
“The big killer is icy weather. A lot of our birds can still find food even with snow, but they can’t get through the ice,” he said. “Usually there will be enough natural food, but feeding when it’s icy it can make a difference.”
It’s the tough weather when I see quail come to feed on scattered seed and corn.
I asked about water, and Brad said that’s always going to attract birds. When there’s snow, they get moisture from that, but the ice locks it up. I used to have a heater to keep the water from freezing but it broke. It’s time to replace it!