Frozen pipes, costly oil bills and dead car batteries — these have been my concerns lately. Living in Maine, I’m not alone. Sub-zero temperatures create a slew of problems. In general, some things just stop working.
Over the past week or so, I’ve huddled indoors, wincing every time the furnace switched on. And with my mind thus occupied, I didn’t pause to think about local wildlife, the Maine residents who truly must weather the weather.
It wasn’t until reading a certain story (posted on Facebook) that I started to worry about local critters, and more specifically, birds.
Here’s the story, paraphrased: A man from Stockton Springs was shoveling snow off the roof of his home on the morning of Jan. 4 when he found a bluejay and a chickadee that both appeared to be frozen solid as they perched on a tree branch. It was -16 degrees Fahrenheit. Intrigued, the man approached the birds, and when he tried to retrieve them from the branch, they fell to the ground below. Stunned, he stood there. Then things get even stranger — as the man stood there, a couple of gray squirrels ran up to the birds, grabbed them and carried them off into the trees.
Now, I’m well aware that this may be a tall tale. I read Facebook posts with a bit of skepticism. After all, people can post pretty much anything. Yet, the story got me thinking. Are birds really dying because of the extreme cold that has engulfed Maine since New Years Eve?
So I called Brad Allen, Bird Group Leader, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“I’ve had a few people concerned about the birds that eat the berries that are left over and buds that are on the trees that are now covered in ice,” Allen said. “The ice may be putting some birds in some stress, but Mother Nature throws us some curveballs, and I’ve learned over my career that birds are incredibly resilient … I think in the big picture, they can handle this just fine.”
Allen said that people may notice birds actively searching for food for longer periods during the day, which puts them at greater risk of predation. But many birds will conserve their energy and wait out the bad weather in shelter.
A few years ago, Allen was concerned about the resilience of wild turkeys during the Maine winter, so he did some research.
“They have no feathers on their head, but I learned that they put their head under their wings to insulate themselves against the cold at night,” Allen said. “And I read about researchers who put turkeys in a cold chamber that was 40 degrees below zero, and as long as those birds had a cup of food a day, they were fine.”
“Birds have the ability to wait out the storm and then thrive when conditions change,” Allen said. “They live here because they’re well adapted for this kind of stress.”
Birds aren’t freezing and dropping dead throughout the Maine woods, according to Allen. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible for birds to freeze to death, given the certain conditions. In fact, in January of 2011, people feared an apocalypse when hundreds of dead birds fell from the sky in Arkansas. The likely cause, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was “violent weather,” leading to disorientation and overexposure.
But watch out. Just because a bird isn’t moving, doesn’t mean its dead. Some birds save energy by staying put and allowing their internal thermostat to drop. In fact, our state bird, the black-capped chickadee, can reduce its body temperature to as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level in a process called regulated hypothermia, according to the 2013 article “How Birds Cope with Cold Weather” published in Audubon Magazine.
Now back to that fascinating Facebook post about the bluejay and chickadee that appeared to be frozen to death. Lets say the story is true. Maybe the bluejay and chickadee couldn’t find food or shelter and froze. Or maybe they were in some sort of shock or torpor. OK. But what about the squirrels? Why would they carry the birds away? I was under the impression that squirrels ate bird seed, not birds.
Well, according to the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, which seems to be an authority on grey squirrels, “grey squirrels are mainly herbivorous, eating acorns and hazel nuts, berries, fungi and even bark, buds and shoots. However, on rare occasions when plant food is very scarce they will eat insects, smaller rodents, bird eggs and nestlings.”
My conclusion: the Facebook story is entertaining, slightly creepy and may even be true. But fortunately for Maine’s birds, the story is not indicative of what’s happening across the state, according to Allen. Maine’s wintering birds are pretty darn rugged.
If you have any observations or stories to share about birds enduring (or not) the cold, feel free to post in the comment section below.