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Natural World: Winter and Wildlife 

The black trailed jack rabbit is one of many critters that adapts to winter life.

The black trailed jack rabbit is one of many critters that adapts to winter life.

Winter's hard on wildlife, just as it is on you and me. But like you and me, wildlife that spend winter with us have tools they can use to stay warm and dry.

Birds in particular are well suited to survive winter, with downy feathers close to their little bodies. The down is like warm long-johns to us, trapping air close to our skin. A bird's outside feathers, that prevent cold wind, snow and rain from reaching their insulating down, are like our jackets.

Most birds seek shelter in dry trees and shrubs and get into thick branches to keep the wind, wet and cold away from their bodies. It's the same for mammals.

I know for sure it is nigh impossible to freeze a great horned owl to death. Years ago a fellow called me at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to tell me he had a dead great horned owl he picked up off a highway.

He lived several miles from my home in Beaverton, so I told him to put it in the freezer. I stopped by that evening.

As I walked into his home I asked if he'd checked the owl for a band. "No, I forgot to. But here," he said, opening his freezer door, "you go ahead and take a look and then take the owl with you."

He opened the door and when he turned his head, he yelped, "What the...!" and slammed the door. We both peeked as he slowly opened the freezer door, and sure enough, the owl was standing upright, blinking at us. Yes, he had a broken wing and wasn't very alert, but it was a live, smirking adult male great horned owl. (I'm sorry to say he did pitch it in later, from injuries sustained from the vehicle strike.)

From the moment they hatch, owls have a thick coat of down that covers their entire body. The insulating qualities are superb at keeping air trapped in the soft down, maintaining the owl's body operating temperature at about 109 degrees.

Ground squirrels and many other animals that make a living above the surface of the ground in summer, have the ability to store fat in their muscles and under their skin.

As snow gathers on meadows and open ground it creates a white and inhospitable looking landscape; however, it also provides homes for mice, shrews, squirrels and voles that use tunnels to gather food.

And as if these rough-legged hawks weren't enough for the rodents to cope with, there are also the short-tailed weasels that weave their way through the tunnels, taking advantage of the easy food source.

Winter is really hard on our native flying squirrels as well, that do not hibernate. Their insect prey is unavailable so they get by with plant parts cached in old woodpecker holes. In nature, however, for every adaptation there is often a counter adaptation. Long-tailed weasels, with their long lean bodies, find their way into chipmunk dens for easy meals, while fishers and pine martens wreak havoc on tree squirrel dens.

Beaver and muskrats—and an occasional otter—build a very comfortable winter home of sticks and grass above the water from which they swim out to feed. One would think such a home would be somewhat impenetrable, but there are mink and bald eagles who do their share to help the "Balance of Nature."

Our native Townsend's big-eared bat sleeps away winter in our lava caves. The winter temperature is aconstant 40-degrees, which is ideal for hibernating bats.

Excess fat is the best element for all wildlife to survive winter. Monarch butterflies use it for fuel and food to make that long flight from northern latitudes to the warm climes of California.

Hummingbirds that are forced to spend winter here, instead of going to Mexico with their kin, also use fat to survive. Plus, they can go into stupor for three days and nights without food or warmth. There may even be Anna's hummingbirds coming to feeders in Oregon right now that have survived the below-zero nights, with just enough warmth during the day for them to leave their shelter and slurp up sugar water.

Sugar water is not food, however. It's a hot-shot substitute that may keep them alive, but they must have the protein of insects.

Wintering birds need that same protein and water, especially. When a bird attempts to use itsbody heat to melt snow and ice into water it uses too much energy. Yes, sage grouse can get away with it, but robins and most feeder-birds can't. They must have flowing or open water to stay alive.

The robins (down from the north—ours are in Sacramento) can get by on juniper berries, old apples and other fruit, but not without water. Please, keep your water feature flowing; the colder it is outside, the more birds need the water.

Meanwhile, the mule deer hanging around Sisters are having a tough time. The well-meaning people who continue to feed them with artificial feeds and tempt them with salt blocks are not being kind. Those deer should be on the deer winter range habitat, mostly east of Central Oregon, where old-growth Western Juniper serves as a big game animal shelter. It is not uncommon to see thousands of mule deer and even elk sheltering among the juniper, eating grasses, sagebrush and bitterbrush without which to forage on, many animals of the high desert would have a tough time.

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