Montana tales and tails
An essay on a bird feeder
December 14, 2018
It seems to take a while after sunrise now for birds to gather at the bird feeder by the kitchen window.
On winter mornings like those recently, when the temperature struggled to rise much above zero, the chickadees, house finches and English house sparrows didn't show up until half an hour after sunrise.
I don't blame them; winter mornings are meant for sleeping in.
All animals that spend at least part of their lives in Montana, inside those man-made boundaries we call state lines, have three strategies for coping with winter: leave, go to sleep or tough it out.
The leaving part is easy to understand and mostly confined to birds. It's called migration and can be fascinating. Some birds that hatch here will migrate on their own to Mexico or Central America without ever having been there.
That's like a Montana resident spending the first 20 years of life never leaving Troy, Cut Bank or Ismay, then one day deciding to drive without a map to Key West or the Yucatan Peninsula.
Some mammals migrate, though shorter distances. Like elk and mule deer coming down from their mountain redoubts to open, wind-swept, grassy hillsides.
Perhaps the most well-known migration for Montana's larger mammals are antelope, which travel more than 100 miles from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan into Montana.
Occasionally, biologists even discover a solitary peripatetic animal. Remember Earl the elk?
In 1987, Earl was just another young bull elk radio collared by a Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist studying elk movements. Then known as No. 964, Earl lived in the Sweetgrass Hills of north central Montana along the Canadian border.
Shortly after No. 964 was collared, he disappeared. It happens. What doesn't happen very often is the animal's reappearance outside Kansas City, Missouri, three years later.
The elk, promptly named Earl, had travelled undetected about 1,900 miles.
For those animals that don't leave Montana's winters, their options are tough it out or go to sleep, usually hibernate.
Among the hibernators are bats and ground squirrels, also known as gophers. When gophers hibernate, their respiration drops from 200 breaths a minute to just one or two. Their heartbeat slows similarly from 400 beats a minute to five or six.
Bears are not true hibernators but do go into a deep sleep often for six months, sometimes more.
The last category of winter survivors are animals that stay here, stay awake and stay alive. They survive through trickery, insulation and just plain toughness.
Sometimes both predator and prey – think weasels and hares and jackrabbits – change color to blend in with snow and avoid detection by each other.
Insulation can come in the form of hair or feathers. Elk have thick fur coats we can only wish for. The animal's winter coat has two layers: a dense, woolly undercoat covered with thick, long guard hairs.
Birds, such as ducks and geese, wrap themselves in down coats, and limit warm blood flowing in their exposed feet.
Of course, everything that stays here and stays awake must eat to live, whether it's the weasel that never seems to stop looking for food, or deer and elk that slow down their metabolism or late-rising birds at the feeder by my kitchen window.
I can't do much about weasels, deer or elk, but I can keep the feeder full.