That’s what we say in the MN northland, when the temperatures drop below 0F. The other day when I ventured out in the early morning, it was -17F (-27C). When I got back in the early afternoon, it had made it all the way up to -3F (-19C), which is just barely tolerable if the sun is out and there is no wind.
And the wildlife aren’t enjoying the cold temperatures any more than I am. Little birds don’t show up at the feeders until mid-morning, and the squirrels (both gray and red) are usually found huddled next to the tree trunk with tails curled over their backs, or basking along the trunk to soak up warmth in the early morning hours.
For those animals (and humans) that can afford to do so, the best solution to surviving cold temperature extremes is to fire up the metabolic furnace. No one enjoys standing out in the cold shivering intensely, but that and the physical exertion of exercise are the first line of defense in staying warm. The trick is to preserve the heat inside the body by improving insulation with a nice layer of subdermal fat, a thick fur coat, and minimizing the surface area exposed to the air.
Another strategy for staying warm in mammals (but rarely in birds) is metabolizing brown fat, which is a special kind of adipose tissue located along the vertebral column, heart, and kidneys. Brown fat is highly vascularized and contains lots of heat producing mitochondrial organelles. The heat produced by a process of non-shivering thermogenesis in the central core of the body can then be circulated to other parts of the body.
So, bundle up and think warm thoughts — the days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky each day. Winter won’t last too much longer.
Some misconceptions to the usual assumptions of what powers Santa’s sleigh need to be addressed:
Fact #1: those antlered reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are all females. How do we know this? Fact #2: both male and female reindeer have antlers — although the males’ antlers are usually much bigger. And Fact #3: male reindeer shed their antlers in late fall, so that by December, they are antler-less. Ergo — the powerful ones pulling the sleigh are the girls.
And this leads inquiring minds to wonder — a) why do female reindeer have antlers at all? (other female members of the deer family do not), and b) why do they have them all winter, only to drop them after their calves are born in the spring?
It would seem to be a great advantage for females to keep those antlers over the winter as they gestate next year’s offspring. They need energy for reproduction, and the food is buried under the snow. Antlers would certainly be useful for removing snow so the reindeer can get to the forage. Larger-bodied males can withstand periods of low food availability better, and need to start re-growing antlers immediately in the spring so they will be ready to compete for mates in the summer and fall.
Now — about that red-nosed leader of Santa’s team. Rudolph, created by Robert May in 1939, is also pictured with antlers, so we must assume he is a she, as well as the rest of the team. But why make such a big deal about the red nose? Is there such a thing as a red-nosed reindeer?
The rosy pink nose of reindeer in the winter is due to high blood flow to the nasal area, which warms the nasal cavity, and thus the warms up the frigid air reindeer breathe in before it goes to the lungs. In addition, flushing the nasal cavity and head with blood from the central core of the reindeer’s body helps keep the animal’s brain warm. I suspect if we did the same thing when eating a slushy drink (like Jamba juice), we wouldn’t get an ice-cream headache.
So, let your kids and grandkids in on the real power behind Santa’s trip around the world on Christmas eve — female reindeer!
The backyard has been really quiet the past couple of weeks, as colder weather sets in and the daylight hours get shorter and shorter. Some days the birds don’t start visiting the feeders until after 9 a.m. Even the squirrels are quiescent, having long ago dug holes all over the backyard to store their walnuts.
But the red foxes make regular treks through the backyard early in the morning, looking for whatever they can find — which apparently isn’t much because they don’t stay more than a minute and then move on to the wetland area in back of the backyard.
Not only are the leaves stubbornly clinging to the trees, but the lovely Fall weather just hasn’t given into Winter cold yet. And we are grateful because the last of the colorful, balmy (?) days are perfect for exploring outdoors.
The progression of activity in the backyard in the Fall is somewhat predictable. This is the time of year the turkeys and deer visit the backyard more often, looking for the best edibles.
Just as the daylight was fading in the backyard, I spied a young fox chasing a very immature, small rabbit around the backyard. This young fox wasn’t interested in eating the rabbit, but certainly seemed to enjoy the chase. All the better to hone its predatory skills. The rabbit did what prey instinctively do when threatened — sat as still as a stone, until the fox turned its head, at which point the rabbit tried to escape. It was quite comical to watch!
We’re back at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska, this time with grandkids to enjoy the sights and the wildlife. With three visits in the past two years, I’m beginning to feel like this place is “home”.
Sunset drives are always full of surprises… bison and pronghorn were grazing in the still-green pastures on some of the 22,000 acres of the park.
More wildlife was spotted near the road the next morning on our drive through Smiley Canyon in the park.
The spring wildflowers were abundant in the grassy meadows as well: a purple Penstemon, the white of the Yucca flowers, and small orange Globe Mallow flowers brought a lot of color to the green pastures.
Continuing our journey east in early May, back to what we hoped would be lovely Spring weather in Minnesota, we drove through southern Wyoming to stop at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River. On the way we passed a little wildlife, posing by the side of the road.
As a species, they survived the Pleistocene glaciations (ice ages), the massive extinction of North American land mammals 10-15,000 years ago, and so far, the habitat and climate changes that have occurred with settlement of the western prairies. This unique ungulate (four-footed herbivore) can run 60+ miles per hour (fastest of any land mammal in North America), but it can’t jump, so it must crawl under fences.
Was it just the weather on this day in early May, or is Wyoming a really cold, desolate place in the Spring?
Springtime in Wyoming — definitely not in May this year.
I’ve always wanted to visit this 42 square mile Utah state park that is connected to Salt Lake City by a long isthmus. And we hit a magnificent, sunny day with dramatic clouds over the lofty Wasatch mountains to drive around it.
We didn’t expect to see so many sea otters on our boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay. Several were in sight at any one time, almost every one with a youngster riding on top as the adult paddled along on its back.
Sea Otters were once very abundant in the coastal marshes and estuaries of western North America, but extensive hunting up until the early 1900s culled their numbers to just a couple thousand animals. Conservation efforts have increased their numbers somewhat, but they are only found in part of their original range. Sea Otters are an important part of the coastal ecosystem because they prey on the sea urchins that ravage the kelp beds and keep the herbivore numbers in check.
Sea Otters bring their prey to the surface, and consume it while floating on their backs. Naturally, some of the food drops onto their fur as they eat, so they continuously roll over while eating to dislodge food fragments. In addition, they meticulously groom their fur to keep it clean and fluffy (i.e., with lots of air pockets).
Otters breed at all times of the year, and pregnancy usually lasts about 4 months, but females can delay the implantation of the single embryo until conditions are best for the pup’s development. Pups stay with the mother 6-8 months, before venturing out on their own, when they are almost full adult size.