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Outdoors/Adventure

Birds know how to survive when the mercury plummets, but your bird feeder can help

Brrr. It is minus-40 in Delta Junction tonight. Some folks are reporting temperatures as low as minus-60 on the east side. Paxson is minus-30, Talkeetna minus-25 and Fairbanks is a balmy minus-42 at the airport.

I can throw another log on the fire and sit a little closer to it, but what about the critters who must sleep outdoors?

The majority of the sled dogs seem to do fine. The long-haired types bounce around unaffected by the temperature. The smaller, short-hair types race for the dog barn when let off the tether. Twenty dogs will spend the cold night indoors.

Horses also manage the frigid nights without issue. The hay supply decreases faster and water consumption rises, but the horses don't frequent the barn.

It is the wild animals I wonder about. Coyotes don’t move as much as normal; that is apparent by the lack of new tracks. Foxes appear immune to the cold; fresh tracks crisscross our driveway as they hunt for snowshoe hares.

Mammals that are relatively large and have hair to keep them warm manage the Interior Alaska cold snaps in fairly good order. What about our feathered friends?

Black-capped and boreal chickadees have always amazed people with their ability to deal with sub-zero temperatures. They move at breakneck speed during daylight hours, indicating a need for substantial calories. Indeed, chickadees may increase their body weight by as much as 10 percent during the day just so they can make it through the night.

Black-capped chickadees squeeze into tiny crevasses in birch trees at night to stay warm. They fluff their body feathers, tuck their feet and heads under their feathers and call it a day when the light becomes too dim to find food.

Black-capped chickadees must have birches during the winter. Old-growth birch are necessary in that they provide the night roosts.

The night-time habits of boreal and gray-headed chickadees, inhabitants of more northern forests, are not known. Some suspect they may sleep under snow.

I spend a lot of time in the woods where boreal chickadees are common, but have never spotted a tiny hole in the snow. I know that some spend their nights in the tree growths of black spruce. Twice, while cutting firewood after dark, I have scared these tiny birds out of small black spruce that had growths in their branches.

The keys for the survival of our wintering birds are a snug haven for the long nights and a substantial high-calorie food source that is accessible during the three or four hours of daylight in mid-winter.

Bird feeders can be a big help but come with a hefty commitment.

The birds you attract to your feeder in October may come to depend on you for a reliable feed source. Birds may come from far and wide to partake of the abundant food the feeder provides.

Once you start to feed, you can't stop. There will likely be more birds at your feeder than the local area can support. Should the source of easy feed at the bird feeder suddenly stop, there are birds that won't be able to find enough food to survive. If you are planning a vacation, have someone restock the feeder while you are away.

Different bird species require their own foods. Chickadees will eat seeds, but prefer suet that is richer in calories. Gray jays will not touch seeds, but will take all of the fat you can offer.

Often, it is wise to set up a couple of feeders. Jays and magpies will spend all day hammering at fat left in a screened feeder. A more open feeder, with a peanut butter and seed mix, will attract more redpolls and chickadees, as a rule.

The location of the bird feeder is an important consideration. Ideally one's feeder should be close to the window, where the antics of your feathered friends can be enjoyed but are also protected from the wind. Take care that the feeder location allows enough visibility for the birds to spot a marauding house cat.

There is little doubt that a feeder increases the survival odds for a relatively large number of birds. The longer the low temperatures hang on, the tougher it becomes for all of our wild friends. Fortunately, this cold snap is forecasted to end in a few days. Animal life will go back to a more normal pace.

Given the late start to our winter, it is hard to believe that we are already on the down side of the cold season and sliding toward spring. In a few short months, new birds will begin to make their way north, foxes and coyotes will begin their search for mates and the cycle will begin again.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

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