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Birds have communal ways to weather winter

Chickadees may be small and seem vulnerable, but they have a few cards under their wing that help them survive our winters. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)

We're into March and that means most of our frigid temperatures should be behind us. The cold winter nights might have meant putting an additional blanket on the bed or an extra log on the fire, but what about wildlife? What do small birds, such as chickadees, do to stay warm when the temperature drops below zero?

When I researched the subject, I found two articles, one written by Jim Williams and the other written by Matthew Gerbrandt. Both writers stated that chickadees can drop their body temperature between fourteen to twenty degrees on cold nights to conserve energy.

Williams goes on to say that chickadees not only store food in several locations throughout their habitat, but they can also remember where they put it so when we have forgotten to fill our feeders, they can rely on their own hidden supply.

Gerbrandt writes about something called "communal roosting." On cold winter nights groups of chickadees may roost together in hollow logs or empty bird houses so that their combined body heat warms the surrounding air.

Many of us have seen birds at our feeders that appear to be very fat and we may think it's due to overeating. Actually, birds understand the concept of insulation. They fluff out their feathers to create dead air space, much like we fluff the fiberglass insulation in our walls or softly blow the insulation into our attics. That's why grouse will sometimes roost under a blanket of snow on cold nights. As snowflakes fall and pack on top of each other, that same dead air space is created, providing some insulation and protection from the winds.

We know how deep snow can cover food sources and make it difficult for animals to survive in northern climates, but years ago I read an article called, "Snow is Nature's Security Blanket" and it pointed out ways that a layer of snow is helpful to wildlife.

Grouse sleeping under the snow is one example of that concept. Another benefit of deep snow is that it serves as a ladder, allowing animals, such as deer and rabbits, to reach higher for food sources.

You can see evidence of this after all the snow melts. Bark will be peeled off hazel brush and other bushes as high as three feet above the ground. That hardly seems like something that rabbits could have done, but just remember, a thirty inch snow cover makes browsing at that height possible. Watch for that this spring when you are hiking through the woods.

One other thing to look for during those early spring hikes is antler sheds. As the bucks drop their antlers each winter they may be hidden by the snow, but as the snow melts, they become visible. Looking for them is a fun activity to share with a child. Finding them is the challenge; taking them home is a personal choice. If you leave them, they provide a source of calcium for smaller animals.

Steve Maanum can be reached at sdmaanum@