Thursday, November 13, 2014

Extreme Cold Requires Extreme Adaptations



We know that all of our fans out there are wondering how the birds in our care are doing in this extreme cold.  The short answer is OK.  But there is more to the story.  It does take some extra planning and work to help them survive such killer cold and to help them thrive.

All of us in northern Colorado have taken the arctic plunge as temperatures dived below 0°f on Tuesday, Wednesday and today.  As I am writing this now, we have warmed up to a balmy -4°.  Between Sunday and Tuesday the temperature dropped 80°.  That is pretty extreme.  The challenge with this extreme drop is that the animals have had little time to adapt to the cooling temps. Normally we have a nice slow decline in temps allowing all creatures time to adjust, put on extra fat, grow in extra down and get used to the cold.  This year, that is not the case.  We are worried about those in the wild and how they are managing.  For those of us who care for the animals, we must be extra attentive to what their needs are.

In the wild, the natural instinct of the birds will be to hunker down in a sheltered area to ride out any storm and bouts of extreme temperatures. This instinct remains intact and serves them well even in captivity.  This allows them to conserve energy and heat.  They will fluff up their feathers, trapping air under them which serves as an insulating blanket.  Some of the birds will lie down on their feet to keep them warm.  Or they will balance on one foot with the other one tucked up in the feathers keeping it warm.  Then they switch off allowing the other foot time in the feathers to get warm.  All wildlife is much more in tune to barometric pressure changes and other signs from the natural world that a storm is approaching or leaving.  Prior to a storms arrival the birds will be busy hunting, trying to get a good meal to put on calories.  Calories equal warmth.  Then after riding out the storm, they will head out to hunt to regain any reserves lost during the storm and cold.  Therefore, during the storm it is not unusual for the birds to not eat.  After all, it takes energy to eat and to digest. 

For the birds in our care we have to manage that delicate balance determining how much energy is expended vs. energy conserved.  For most of the larger bodied birds, such as eagles, great-horned owls, and buteo’s this is not too difficult.  Those guys have lots of mass that helps them to keep warm and most of them are well adapted to cold weather.  We pay extra attention to patients that are recovering from injuries or illnesses, the birds that head south for the winter like Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks and all the small birds.  Any bird barn owl size and smaller we need to start worrying about.  When thinking about an American kestrel that only weighs about 100g, if they lose much weight while waiting out the storm that can leave them severely depleted in energy.  It is these little guys that we spend extra time making sure they are eating enough during this cold weather.  This includes feeding them twice a day and in some cases hand feeding them so they have enough calories to keep them warm.  We make sure we disturb all the birds as little as possible to limit them having to burn energy.

At this point a lot of you readers may be asking; Why don’t you just move them all inside?  Moving them inside is a temporary fix and can make things harder on them in the long run.  It is quite a shock for the body to move back and forth from cold to warm and then to cold again. You all have experienced this yourselves I’m sure.  That first time you step from your nice warm house out the front door the cold hits you as if ice daggers are plunging through your system.  If we move a bird inside, it often can’t go back outside for many days longer than the duration of the storm.  In some cases that could mean it would be inside for weeks.  That will add stresses to the birds by being in such an unnatural environment and more closely exposed to human presence. 


For many of the birds we do make adjustments to their enclosures to help them stay warm.  Most importantly we make sure they all have a sheltered spot and that they are using it.  This may be a simple a-frame in the cage that they hunker into.  In some cases, like with our burrowing owl, we will move carpet into that shelter and give them a Snuggle Safe heat disk. These disks are awesome and an important part of any wildlife care facility.  They are heated in the microwave to slightly warm, not hot.  We can put that into any enclosure and the birds get some ambient heat from it. It doesn’t make the space or the bird too hot and it doesn’t involve electricity.   The disk gradually cools off and the birds acclimate.  Our beloved old turkey vulture did move into a smaller, more sheltered enclosure that makes it easier for him to stay warm.  He first re-arranged the carpet to his personal style then he settled in, laid down on his feet to keep them warm and has stayed comfortable.  

All of the birds with the RMRP, including the birds living at the ELC are being well cared for, daily.  We have amazing and resilient volunteers and staff that are able and willing to brave the frigid weather.   Sometimes we have so many layers of clothing on we look like Randy in “A Christmas Story”, barely able to move our arms. But we are there, providing the much needed food for the birds and making sure they are healthy and safe.   You can help us to provide the food and care for these birds by donating today at www.RMRP.org/donate.  Your dollars will translate into calories that will keep those birds warm in this unexpected cold. Please consider a donation today.


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