Vail Daily column: Chickadee’s adaptations allow it to thrive in cold
December 29, 2013
Most birds fly south for the winter. Everyone knows that. But as you ski the trees or snowshoe through the pines this winter, you may notice a small little bird flitting around in the trees accompanied by its sweet harmonious song. This tiny little snow bird that lives here all year round is the chickadee.
Many of you may wonder, as you are freezing your buns off despite high tech layers designed to ward off the chill; why does this tiny bird choose to stay for Colorado's cold winters? The chickadee stays because it has many amazing adaptations that allow it to survive, and even thrive, in the cold.
All Puffed Up
The chickadee has an ingenious way of keeping itself warm, so ingenious that humans have made a copy of it to help keep us warm. The chickadee puffs up its feathers, trapping air, which its body heats up, creating a cozy layer of insulation. Whenever you put on a down jacket, comforter, or sleeping bag, you are using a similar technique to help keep you warm.
This little ball of feathers that weighs no more than a handful of paperclips has to do everything it can to keep itself from turning into a feather covered ice ball at night. One way it does this is by going into a regulated hypothermia. At night when it is really cold, the chickadee lowers its body temperature by 12 to 15 degrees below its normal body temperature of 108 degrees. This allows the chickadee to conserve energy and, essentially, stay alive. So on those really cold nights when you are snuggled up in your cozy bed with layers of blankets in your warm house, think of the chickadee in its hollowed out tree cavity lowering its body temperature to stay warm, and don't forget to refill those feeders!
Even with the regulated hypothermia at night, the chickadee still uses a lot of energy to stay warm and this energy needs to be replaced during the day with lots of food. Chickadees eat insects, seeds, berries, spiders and are even known to enjoy a frozen popsicle from a dead animal carcass. Basically, they spend most of their winter days building up fat and preparing to make it through the cold night.
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Just like humans have pantries and cabinets to put food away for later; the chickadee hides food to eat throughout the winter. But the chickadee hides its food in thousands of different places, instead of one large cache. You may wonder how this tiny birdbrain finds all of these different locations when you cannot remember where you just put your keys. The chickadee has the amazing ability to kill old brain neurons replacing them with new ones containing new information, allowing them to make the most of the small brain space they do have.
So, as you are out and about this winter, keep your eyes and ears open for the little chickadees flitting through the trees. In Colorado, there are two different species of chickadee that share our home: the black-capped chickadee and the mountain chickadee. These two look very similar with a black cap, black throat and gray backs. The mountain chickadee, however, has a white stripe above its eye, like a white eyebrow. Both species have a similar call, though, and you are more likely to hear their "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" call before you see them. Watch and listen for both of these little fluffballs out this winter; they may look small and delicate, but they are really some of our most resourceful winter survivors.
Michelle Robbins is a winter naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. Walking Mountains has ongoing winter programming at its campus in Avon and at the Nature Discovery Center on Vail Mountain. Check out their website for more information at http://www.walkingmountains.org.