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Winter Adaptations

Pectination Growth Started

10-12-17 pectinations 049A5827Every fall Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) 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, as well as cling to icy branches while eating the buds of poplars and other trees in the winter. In the spring grouse shed these adaptive fringes.

Ornithological texts describe these growths as appearing in the fall, but usually do not specify exactly when they develop.  A recent look at a road-killed grouse’s foot (photo) showed that pectinations have begun to develop, but have not completed their growth. The pectinations shown here will double their length by the time snow flies.

 

 

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Ruffed Grouse Snow Roosting

 

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I recently had an experience while snowshoeing which I have always hoped to have, but which has escaped me during all these years of tromping through the woods. I was following the tracks of a Ruffed Grouse and all of a sudden it exploded out of the snow about two feet in front of me as it left its night time shelter. Now that we have over ten inches of fluffy snow, grouse can dive into the snow and spend the night in their self-made snow roosts. Finding a grouse’s snow roost is a relatively common experience; being startled by a grouse exiting one is not.

Diving head first into the snow, the grouse works its way anywhere from three to ten feet, creating a 4-inch-wide tunnel through the snow before it hollows out a small cavity and settles down for the night in its own little igloo. Up until recently, a hard crust prevented grouse from seeking shelter this winter in this manner. Had temperatures been very cold, many grouse would have suffered and even perished under these conditions. Fortunately, they can now roost in the snow, where temperatures are much warmer (as high as 32°F.), and rarely fall below 20°F. regardless of how cold it gets outside. Not only do these roosts hide the occupants from predators, but they provide an energy savings of 30 percent or more for grouse.

(Photo: Snow roost entrance hole (nearest the bottom of photo) where a grouse dove into the snow, and the exit hole (nearest top of photo), three feet from entrance hole, which a Ruffed Grouse created when it exploded out of its roost. If you look closely at the exit hole, you may be able to detect wing marks.)

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Winter Mouse House

11-14-16-mouse-house2-049a1332One of my very favorite animal signs is the winterized home of a Deer or White-footed Mouse. Most songbirds do not re-use their nests. Once the nestlings have fledged, what doesn’t get recycled directly from the nest by other birds or critters slowly disintegrates from rain and snow. That is, unless an agile mouse discovers it and renovates it first. Deer and White-footed Mice are known for using abandoned nests as larders (see  https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/mice-preparing-for-winter/) or as homes for the winter. For the latter, a roof is constructed, usually out of milkweed or cattail fluff, but I have even found man-made insulation used as construction material for a roof. (The pictured nest has been well insulated with a roof of cattail fluff.)

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Huddling to Keep Warm

flying squirrel3 IMG_8550Animals which remain active year round in northern New England use different strategies to survive the cold winter temperatures. Lowering metabolism through torpidity (on cold nights black-capped chickadees and other species reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level in a process called regulated hypothermia), shivering, caching food in the fall, puffing out feathers to create insulating pockets of air, excavating tunnels under the snow, seeking protection in cavities – these are just a few of the life-saving techniques used by mammals and birds which neither migrate nor hibernate.

Another strategy which some of these animals use is to huddle together to conserve warmth. Huddling reduces the animal’s surface-area-to-volume ratio, since it turns many small animals into a single big animal. The larger the animal, the smaller the surface-area to volume ratio and the less relative area there is to lose heat.

Bluebirds and flying squirrels are two animals which huddle to keep warm. Eastern bluebirds may huddle together in a tree cavity or hollow log in groups of up to ten. Flying squirrels often huddle together in large communal nests, sometimes with populations numbering over two dozen squirrels, in an effort to keep warm. If this is not sufficient, the squirrels will enter a state of torpor until temperatures return to normal. (Thanks to Susan Parmenter for photo op.)

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Ruffed Grouse Nostril Feathers

12-16-14 ruffed grouse nostrils IMG_2376Ruffed Grouse have adapted to cold winter months in a number of ways, from growing “snowshoe” pectinations on their toes to having their legs covered with fine feathers. Equally effective are the feathers covering a grouse’s nostrils, which are thought to heat cold air as the bird breathes in. (Thanks to Sara and Warren Demont for photo op.)


Millipedes Migrating

11-11-14 millipede IMG_8982We don’t often see millipedes because of their preference for secluded, moist sites where they feed on decaying vegetation and other organic matter. Compost piles, heavily mulched shrub or flower beds, rotting logs, or the soil under logs and stones are likely spots to find these arthropods. Millipedes overwinter as adults, and have been seen migrating in the fall, presumably in search of overwintering sites that will provide them with some protection.

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Big Brown Bats Entering Hibernation

11-7-14  big brown bat IMG_7011Big Brown Bats, one of the most widespread mammals of North America, are one of the last species of bat to be seen flying in the fall. A relatively hardy species, the Big Brown Bat can tolerate conditions that other bats can’t. However, once cold weather arrives in the late fall and the nighttime temperatures dip down into the 30’s, they go into hibernation.

Both the Big Brown Bat and the endangered Little Brown Bat are considered “house bats,” because they are the most common bats found in houses in both summer and winter. During October, November and December, Big Brown Bats seek out caves, buildings and mines in which to hibernate. Some may migrate short distances to find an appropriate location for hibernating, but many find hibernacula close to their summer residence. Individuals often become active for brief periods during the winter months, sometimes even changing hibernation sites. Big Brown Bats can live up to 18-20 years in the wild but, unfortunately, most Big Brown Bats die during their first winter because they did not store enough fat to survive through their entire hibernation period.

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