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Beating the cold, one feather at a time
The cold front was moving fast toward the lower Fraser River Valley. Extreme winds aloft were pushing the frontal mass, some 450 miles long, down onto the lower mainland of B.C. Temperatures were dropping into the 20s. And all forecasts predicted movement into the Salish Sea by midnight, then over the strait onto the Olympic Peninsula with a long range forecast of heavy snow, subzero temperatures and extreme winds lasting into late January.
A really nasty, long-term winter storm was on its way.
She sat talon-tucked on the dead branch. Dusk was coming on. It’d been two days since she’d taken the vole over in the field near the barn. The grass was short there. Easy to see movement. The cold didn’t really bother her. The winds did, though. Hard to see down through the snow to the grass when blades were knocking together in the 20-mph blow. She shifted body feathers into new rifts, realigning the air beneath.
She stretched a wing; then the other. Then each leg. Extending talons. Flexing. Then back under her belly they went. A head shake. She stared outward, searching the edges of the fields. Getting darker. No sun. Clouds were low and gray.
She felt the snow start to cut into her feathers as the first flakes began to blow past her. Nothing in her crop. Nothing in her belly. She was hungry. She cocked her head to the left. Eyed the grassy area near the broken fence. Movement. She brought her head around. Both eyes focused.
There. Again. A dark movement. She shifted her body toward it. Sleeked feathers down. Lifted herself up a bit off the limb. Head forward again. Definitely movement. What though? Vole? No. Something larger. Longer.
What was it doing? She leaned forward; looking; waiting. Weasel! And it was feeding on a vole. “Wow,” she thought, a “two ’fer.” She dove her body out off the limb. Two quick power flaps. Snapping primaries down. Pushing hard. Head forward. Still there. Eyes locked. Another power stroke. And then it was time. Throwing her legs out, body arched back, talons spread, head tucked down. She could see the weasel rise up just as she plunged down into the grass, snow blown aside, and … nothing but grass clutched in her talons. The wind blew snow back in her face. Snow buried under her feathers. Nothing! Now she felt the cold.
Torpor is a way of life for hummers in a temperate-latitude winter. An evolutionary gambit was critical when temps were dipping below zero. He shivered his 2-gram body, shrugged, then shivered again.
Shifting each feather so that barbule interlocked to barb interlinking with every other feather on his minuscule body. Slowly, his metabolism came up. His body temperature was so low, death was simply waiting. Breathe. A tiny flutter. ‘Cold,’ he thought, ‘so cold!’ Another breath. It would take him another 15 minutes to bring his body temperature up high enough where wings would work in flight. Blinking. Another shiver. Not from the cold, but from wing muscles vibrating, warming his blood. Slowly. He would have enough energy still in reserve for those first feeding flights. And he knew where he was going. It was his first winter. The feathers growing out under his chin were just starting to show red. It was still dark. No light in the eastern sky. It was his circadian rhythm bringing him active; not the sunrise. Again he thought, “that feeder over the sleeping dog always has really sweet nectar.”
But he was tired. He need to sleep now that his internal body temperature was coming active. Sleep. Eyes closed. Dreaming. The feeder would be there waiting when dawn came and his first flight. Sleep now in the subzero dawn. Just an hour. Then the feeder.
It was her seventh winter; and this one was getting long. The cold was taking its toll. Every day at the seeder-feeders there were fewer others. The seed was plentiful. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the long, severe cold nights. She’d shaken herself awake. There was an edge of light to the east. The gray skies held nothing but more snow coming down again. Not flakes. But tiny crystals drifting into the lower branches of the fir where she was tucked in. Her talons were still clasped to the branch fitting her feet.
Jutted down like she was, the dynamics of her physiology held her in place. Seems evolution gave the tendons in her lower legs the ability to pull her toes together forming grips as she settled down onto the limb. A built-in latch system. She wouldn’t fall off. She fluffed her feathers. Gathering in a bit more air. She was warm. But not by much.
She was at the critical juncture of needing food to metabolize into bodily functions; and functions into heat to sustain her. Lighter. But not light enough yet. She could hear jays calling from the edge of the river. They were always the first to the feeders. Snarffling everything they could toss down their gullet.
They came flying in, crashing and chasing everyone else off and away. Then snarffling. She didn’t like that. She was always afraid they’d take it all. Then what? She felt stiff.
Seven winters. And they were getting harder. She moved. Ruffled feathers. Shook them into place. She looked around. Still dark against the bowl of the fir, but the sky was light enough. Time to move. She hopped to a lower branch. She felt, didn’t see, another junco fly out of the tree. She looked around. Knew where the feeder was. Bending legs, stiff legs, she threw herself into the air. Wings out. Then the quick flight to the fence. She didn’t even look around before she hopped down onto the tray. She didn’t hear the sparrow’s warning chips or the chickadee yelling “predator.” Then she looked up, sunflower seed in her bill, and saw only a blur coming at her. A blur filled with talons!
Sitting back on the tree’s largest limb. A straight line view down to the feeder. A young Sharpy. Not fluffed against the cold. But sleeked down. Bent forward. Looking. Waiting. Experienced at this by now. It was getting lighter. He knew they’d be moving soon. All those little salvation morsels against the cold. The bitter cold. There were fewer birds coming to the feeder. Too many not coming out of the trees at dawn. He waited.
There. He saw the chickadee as the chickadee saw him. She gave warning, ‘chick-a-dee-dee-dee!’ He heard the white crowned sparrow give its warning chips. Then he saw the junco come up on the fence. She looked down into the feeder. She didn’t even look around. She hopped down to the feeder. He pushed off. Wings moving powerfully as he struck her with all talons forward.
The two in tandem went past the window where inside the dwelling the human sat by the wood stove drinking his morning coffee watching through the window at the feeders he’d just filled for the birds he knew had had a long night at -15F.
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.