Does it seem to you that this winter has been persistently cold? I think I get less tolerant of the cold as I get older. I still go, but I layer up more and walk a bit faster.
The birds are built for traveling to warm climates or surviving in the cold. Some hummingbirds travel a couple of thousand miles to follow food and warm weather. Waterfowl are interesting in that they are built for the cold and for migrating to survive.
The winter of 2013-2014 saw 92% of the Great Lakes covered in ice. Lots of ducks starved and died in that unusual cold in late February and March as noted by birders and Ducks Unlimited.
Ducks have layers of insulating feathers and counter-current blood flow to reduce heat loss in their feet and legs. They also have fat stores in their body for insulation and survival. Increased energy demands to maintain body heat and restricted feeding opportunities due to the ice/snow cover are not much of a risk in short-term freezes. Things thaw out, feeding resumes and a week or so of limited feeding is not in the least life-threatening due to their abundant fat stores. When the freeze and snow cover is extended, the body mass declines and the birds must migrate or starve. The cold snap during the early duck season this year forced a lot of birds to fly right past the Bottoms and Quivira.
We had a relatively poor duck season this year. I haven’t seen many diving ducks this year either. The divers are more at risk because their food is under the water. The ducks that suffered most were the mergansers, Scoters, golden-eyes and scaup. Research indicated that more than 60% of the Atlantic brant population died in the winter of 1976-77 when the bays and estuaries along the east coast were covered with ice. The eagles that follow the waterfowl call these situations “picnics” and they dine very well.
I hope this is the last really cold snap for us. I spoke to my buddy in Alberta and he asked what our temp outside was. I told him it was 29. In about 5 minutes he sent me a text and reported that his temp was 65 degrees colder than ours. I knew there was a good reason I didn’t live in Canada. We went up there to hunt musk ox a few years ago. They dressed us in caribou skins and stuck us in the back of a sled behind a snowmobile for 70 miles to set up camp. The tip of my nose stuck out and froze and turned black. It was minus 25 or so...
It behooves all of us to layer up and stay warm when we work or play out in the cold. We carefully watch our hunting companions and take platforms for them to sit on until it is time to retrieve a bird. There are wonderful neoprene dog jackets that make their lives a lot better when their masters lose their minds and decide to go hunting in the cold. But it sure is fun!
Go see the eagles at the Bottoms and Quivira. If you find open water, look for the diving ducks—they are beautiful—and always know that spring is coming.
Doctor Dan Witt is a retired physician and nature enthusiast.