I celebrated my birthday this week by getting stuck to a watering can.

Country ethos demands animals be cared for before the farmer gets to eat breakfast. Therefore, on a Monday morning when I had to go to work early, I was out in the pre-dawn, 14-below-zero, windy nasty trying to get the water cans thawed and refilled with nice warm water for all the birds. This is not work that can be done wearing gloves so a typical annoyance is freezing to the metal cans — reminiscent to getting stuck to whatever metal object your childhood friends induced you to touch with your tongue.

The trick is to grab right on because the body heat from heavier parts of your hand will thaw you loose in a second or two. Toward the end of my chores, I ran out of hot water and, as I was picking things up to go get another pail, I inadvertently touched the tip of my index finger to one of the waterers that had been sitting in the cold waiting to be filled. There is not enough warmth in a fingertip to thaw it loose so I had to hike back to the kitchen and run it under warm water to free myself. An annoyance, but at least I have gained enough control of my temper not to just pull free and leave a section of skin on the pail, as I have in the past.

We are in the coldest sustained period in this century and the deadly wind chill figures have prompted many folks to question why this is not equally deadly for wildlife. Several of the questions this time relate to this concern.

I know we have had colder temperatures but 24 degrees below zero and a 30 mph wind is deadly. Can we look forward to a pleasant summer because all the ticks have frozen to death?

I wish. However, most of the insects that hibernate are pretty much unaffected by the degree of cold. The duration of freezing weather can have an impact on how fast they build up in the next year but as long as there is decent snow cover they will do just fine and awake refreshed in the spring to resume sucking blood and infecting us.

How on earth do birds survive this sort of cold? That wind must cut right through them.

Dr. Wifey stews about my temperature. My usual winter garb of a lined flannel outer shirt makes her crazy. This is manifested by the purchase of a coat or two every winter, which I typically wear only enough to keep her from complaining before donating. However, when it is below zero and windy, there is one that is comfortable. This is a nylon shell with natural down for insulation. In this, I can stand on a frozen lake or in the wind-swept canyons of the Big Apple and be perfectly comfortable.

It is exactly the same for all our birds. Their hard, overlapping outer feathers form a wind-proof shell and the light down underneath provides insulation. They are essentially little bubbles of warmth in a sea of freezing air. When they are not moving, you will often see them puff up, essentially getting more insulating air in amongst the fluffy down for even more warmth. At night, many species actually go into a semi-hibernation to conserve energy. They awake in the morning, shiver for a couple minutes to generate heat inside their insulation, and are then ready to face the day.

After a “near miss” on thin ice caused by an ice eater, we were talking about how thick the ice had to be to support an ATV. There have been a few things on the news lately but they all seem different. Someone in your favorite diner said you wrote something about ice and we should ask you — so this is us asking.

Before anything else, let me just state that all bets are off when it comes to the various sorts of underwater propellers that move the water to keep it from freezing around docks. A very small change in angle can dramatically effect the size and pattern of the ice degradation. There have been instances of dock owners purposely aiming them toward the lake to keep people away from their property.

The danger here is, of course, while open water can be avoided, the thinning of the ice cannot be seen. Generally, if you see open water around a dock, stay much farther than you think you should have to from that area. Apart from human-caused dangers, the problem with ice-thickness formulas seen on TV is they do not account for the many different types of ice, a factor which dramatically effects the strength of ice. I do an ice safety column every three or four years just to keep reaching out to new readers both because it is important information and I do not want to lose supporters when they fall through the ice.

The last such was in 2016 and you can find it at this web address: https://poststar.com/sports/outdoors/columns/bhenke/when-it-comes-to-ice-best-to-be-cautious/article_ff1d9685-334c-582c-83aa-d850367d26af.html If you go to The Post-Star’s website and search for ice safety along with my name, you will get a list of the various columns over the years. Or you can catch me at the restaurant and I can explain it in an hour or so.

You keep saying “puddle duck” and “divers.” This is a bit confusing since they are all on the river and can’t all ducks dive? What is up with this?

Waterfowl in general are divided into two groups depending on their morphology and this morphology translates to the way they have evolved to feed. Puddle ducks are named not because they frequent smaller waterbodies but rather because their feeding strategy is called “puddling.” A puddle duck tips up in the water, tail in the air, head underneath, to reach foodstuffs in shallow water. In deeper water, they bring water into their beaks and force it out through the small serrations in the back, essentially straining out small bugs, algae and plankton.

Puddle ducks are capable of vertical takeoff and leap straight up out of the water to begin flight. In the water, they look like little boats with their tails high. Diving ducks’ profile on the water is more like a submarine, tail low in the water. Their legs are set farther back to help propel them underwater. On land a puddle duck waddles. A diver just barely gets along; some species even scoot along on their bellies.

Divers, as the name implies, dive underwater, often to great depths to procure their food. Shorter wings help with this but make flight more difficult. A diving duck must get up some speed before it can fly, hence you see them running along the surface, flapping madly, until they achieve sufficient lift to take off. Mallards, blacks and wood ducks are puddle ducks. Canvasbacks, goldeneyes and mergansers are divers.

All this talk of ducks has reminded me it is time to go thaw the waterers again so the birds can have an evening drink before sleeping. Hopefully, I shall remain unstuck this time.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


Load comments