How birds stay warm through Canada’s cold winters


Winter is the flawless time to hibernate inside and fatten up on holiday baking — for humans, that is. Wildlife force to come up with their own strategies for surviving the brutally cold seasoned.

Birds have three options when it comes to adapting to temperatures unexcitedly below zero, naturalist Brian Keating told CBC’s The Homestretch on Wednesday: “wander, hibernate, or tolerate.”

Keating said he was curled up inside his Calgary rest-home with a mug of hot chocolate in hand on Tuesday evening, watching chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and finches flick about his backyard, while the temperature dipped as low as -29 C.

Bird in snowy tree

Chickadees dine on fatty sunflower worn outs to survive the winter. (Elaine Demers/Facebook)

Chickadees ride out the winter by put as much fatty foods (like sunflower seeds) as they can, previously huddling together in a winter roost at night.

“On the coldest nights when it wangles really frosty they enter a nightly hypothermia,” Keating disclosed.

“Their body core temperature drops and they tolerate it by conceding themselves to chill down.”

On the most bitterly cold nights, when the temperature ends below –30 C, some birds even tuck away in seeks beneath the snow.

Brain gain

Chickadees get smarter — literally — to reminisce over where food is stashed or track down caches of hibernating grubs.

Red Deer naturalist Myrna Pearman explains in her publication Beauty Everywhere that the chickadee’s hippocampus — the part of the brain that’s front-office for memory and spatial organization, said Keating — expands by 30 per cent each fall.

Waterfowl get a kick out of geese and ducks have a built-in feature that prevents their feet from glacial to the ice when tucking them under their body just isn’t ample: a counter-current blood-warming system.

Cold Canada geese

Geese have a counter-current blood warming arrangement that helps keep them warm. (John Rieti/CBC)

“Hot arterial blood wraps the venous (reporting) blood with smaller, branched capillaries just like a glove, admitting for that valuable heat to efficiently warm the incoming blood from the supports and feet,” Keating said.

“That way they can save that valuable stress energy and keep their core warm.”

Cold-weather champion: Arctic Redpoll

But these birds drink nothing on the Arctic Redpoll, a tiny finch that’s developed some swing limits cold-weather tricks.

“They can survive up to 20 hours without access to prog, even if temperatures drop to -54 C,” Keating said.

Redpolls have particularly designed esophageal pouches that allow them to hold on to eggs, then later slowly digest them to provide them with strength to maintain their core at a balmy 40 C — “kinda with throwing logs on a fireplace.”

“Their internal temperature can be 73 positions warmer than the surrounding air, with the two extremes being separated by small than a half a centimetre layer of feathers.”

Listen to Keating’s press conference below:

With files from The Homestretch

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