Birds that remain in New England year round use various strategies to withstand cold winter nights. One such strategy involves choosing a site well-protected from the wind, such as a thick stand of conifers, in which to spend the night. Birds that nest in cavities, such as nuthatches and woodpeckers, often roost in holes as well. White-breasted nuthatches usually roost singly. Occasionally two may share a hole, and as many as 29 have been found in a large tree cavity.
When the snow on the ground is 10” or more deep, and the night is very cold, ruffed grouse often seek shelter from the elements by diving into the snow and spending the night there. Sometimes they burrow five or ten feet into the snow, but sometimes, as in this case, they stay pretty much where they landed, perhaps a foot or so deep in the snow bank. This adaptive behavior not only hides them from predators, but serves to insulate the bird, as it rarely goes below 20 degrees F. in the cavity, regardless of how cold the air is. More often than not, the grouse defecates during its stay in the snow (dark matter in photograph). When leaving its snow cave, sometimes a grouse will burst out of the snow as it flies away, but as you can see from the groove in the snow in this photograph, this grouse chose to travel by foot.
The Ruffed Grouse has both behavioral and physical strategies for dealing with the cold, snow and ice of New England winters. Three of the physical changes that take place in the fall are evident by looking closely at a grouse’s legs, feet and beak. The feathers on its legs grow thicker and further down towards its feet, to provide better insulation. Small comb-like growths of skin, called pectinations, develop along either side of each toe. These increase the surface area of a grouse’s foot, and serve as snowshoes in deep snow. They also help the grouse cling to icy branches while it quickly snips off poplar and other buds at either end of the day. And on its beak, feathers expand downward to cover its nostrils, slowing the cold air and giving it a chance to warm up before it is inhaled by the grouse.
Ice is starting to form on ponds, and days are numbered when beavers can be out grooming themselves on land or eating freshly-cut branches. As long as the ice is thin enough to crack by swimming up under it and bumping their heads against it, they will do so, for soon it will be thick enough to lock them into their pond. Life under the ice is challenging. At 32 degrees F. a beaver’s resistance to heat loss in water is about 1/8th of that in air at the same temperature. This is due to the fact that its fur is compressed in the water, allowing the insulating air between the hairs to escape — a beaver’s pelt accounts for about 24% of its total insulation in water and body fat is responsible for the rest. Heat is also retained through a beaver’s tail and hind legs, which serve as heat exchangers. In the summer, a beaver can lose 25% of its body heat through its tail, but it only loses 2% in winter. Even so, it’s no wonder beavers risk getting a headache in order to see the sun for the last time until spring.
What happens to insects this time of year? A few remain active, such as snow fleas, and some, like monarch butterflies, migrate, but the vast majority of insects overwinter in New England. The insects that stay here are susceptible to freezing due to the fact that they cannot control the temperature of their body. Some insects, such as woolly bear caterpillars, can tolerate having ice form in their tissues, but most insects go into a state known as diapause. When the days start getting shorter, these insects reduce the water content of their body, as water freezes at a high temperature compared to other liquids, and replace it with glycerol, which acts like antifreeze, protecting them from freezing. (Please excuse duplicate post. I’m testing new posting process.)
Hard to believe as it may be, red foxes spend most nights curled up in the open air — winter, summer, fall and spring–regardless of the temperature. Often they sleep in open fields, in an elevated area, where they can keep an eye out for approaching danger. When making a bed, they curl up in a ball and wrap their bushy tail around themselves, covering their faces. According to Leonard Lee Rue, when foxes sleep in the open, they usually doze for 15 to 25 seconds and then wake up, look around carefully, and nap again. Only when a fox sleeps in dense cover does it go into a heavy sleep, waking every hour or so. If you look closely, you can see two fox beds in this photograph — one at about one o’clock and one at about seven o’clock. Each is about a foot in diameter.
Every fall ruffed grouse grow skin-like fringes called pectinations on either side of each toe. They serve as snowshoes, helping grouse stay on top of the snow when walking, and also help them cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes. The bird whose foot is in this photograph met its untimely death about a week ago (they frequently fly into windows, as this one did), and I was curious to see the stage of development of the pectinations at this time of year. They appear to be about half to two-thirds the size they will attain when fully developed.