Keeping Warm in Chilly Weather

by Gail Cochrane

Liberty Wildlife Volunteer

Have you ever watched a bird stay warm? Birds are warm blooded and must maintain a body temperature around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. How do they manage?

Unlike the follicles that hold human hair, the follicles that hold bird feathers in place are energized with nerves and mobilized with muscles. This allows birds to adjust the position of their feathers, instrumental in both flight and in staying warm.

Feathers are made of keratin, same as our fingernails, so are they lightweight and also prone to breaking down over time. Birds molt one to two times a year and grow in new feathers. In addition to the flight feathers on wings and tail that allow for aerodynamics, every bird has contour feathers. These are smaller feathers that cover the body and provide protection from wind, cold and sun. Overlapping, like scales on a fish, they are waterproofed on the tips to repel rain, and fluffy at the base where they tuck close to the body.

Coverts are contour feathers that border and overlay the edges of the wing and tail feathers, helping to provide a streamlined “airfoil” for most efficient flight.

Closest to the bird’s body are soft, fluffy down feathers that trap body heat in. Birds fluff out the contour feathers to trap air between the down protecting the body and the contour feathers themselves. These protective air pockets keep birds warm. On a cold morning you may see a familiar bird looking puffy and a bit rounder than normal. Sleeked back down, feathers become aerodynamic once again.
The structure of feathers is such that each hollow central feather shaft is lined with feather barbs, and each barb is lined with interlocking barbules. Birds use their beaks to smooth these barbules into place, forming a protective shield. Birds also preen, pulling oil from a gland near their tail over the surface of their feathers to condition them and help with waterproofing. Some birds, including mourning doves, herons and egrets grow special feathers that disintegrate into powder over time, and this powder is rubbed into the feathers for waterproofing.

The hummingbird in this picture is fluffing their feathers for warmth. Covering their feet also prevents the loss of body heat. In very cold weather hummingbirds lower their body temperature and enter a state called torpor to survive.

In summer birds fluff out contour feathers to allow excess heat to escape the body. They may also dip their feet or heads in water if it is available, just like us.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

by Claudia Kirscher

Liberty Wildlife Volunteer

[This article originally appeared in Nature News May 2012]

We are all familiar with this song title by George & Ira Gershwin containing the lyrics, “You like ‘poe-tay-toe’ and I like ‘poe-tah-toe.’” There is just as much controversy and argument about the English pronunciation of some bird names. Referencing a selection of dictionaries and bird books, let’s have a little fun and see how we differ. Keep in mind, there exist many common bird names that may be correctly pronounced in more than one way (the syllable upon which the stress falls is capitalized below):

Accipitor [a type of hawk] (ak-SIP-it-ter)
Bendire’s Thrasher (BEN-die-ers)
Bewick’s Wren (BUICKS, like the car)
Botteri’s Sparrow (BOT-er-eyes)
Common Murre (MUR, rhymes with fur)
Crissal Thrasher (KRIS-uhl)
Gyrfalcon (JER-fall-ken or JER-fal-ken as in pal)
Lazuli Bunting (LAHZ-uh-lie or LAZ-uh-lie)
Northern Goshawk (GAHS-hawk)
Osprey (AH-spray or AH-spree)
Parula [a warbler] (PA-ruh-lah, NOT pa-ROO-lah)
Plover (PLO-ver or PLUH-ver)
Pyrrhuloxia (PEER-uh-LOCK-see-ah)
Rose-throated Becard (BECK-erd or buh-KARD)
Sabine’s Gull (SAB-inz)
Smooth-billed Ani (AH-nee)
Vaux’s Swift (VAWKS)
And lastly, Pileated Woodpecker (PIE-lee-ate-ed or PILL-ee-ate-ed)

Excerpts and quotes from “Pronounced Burd” by Kurt Radamaker & Michael A. Patten, Birding Magazine April 1990. Used with the express permission of Mr. Radamaker.

Lead Poisoning – Part 1

by Greg Martin

Liberty Wildlife Volunteer

[This article originally appeared in Nature News May 2012]

In the past, Liberty Wildlife has seen California condors die after a failed battle against lead poisoning, most likely the result of ingesting a scavenged bullet fragment from a hunter’s kill. This article is the first in a 3-part series examining where lead bullets come from and why we use them, the effects they have on wildlife, and a forecast of what the future may hold for both birds and bullets.

Where did the lead come from that killed the condor? From a gun barrel, obviously. But before that? The manufacturer. And before that? Early European firearms came into existence before the end of the Middle Ages, and ever since then, through the Ages of Exploration, Colonization, Imperialism, Industrialism, our Digital Age and likely beyond, gunpowder has made the world go ‘round. And until recently, those guns were firing exclusively lead bullets. Lead has been the standard for small-caliber ammunition from practically the first shot fired. Lead is a soft metal and incredibly abundant. Lead can be melted down and shaped by almost anyone, a key factor in previous centuries when there was no such thing as a local hunting goods store. The malleability of lead allowed our Founding Fathers to fashion their own bullets from household objects. Lead expands once it hits its target, a byproduct of its natural composition. This expansion produces wounds that are larger, and thus more lethal. Through war and peace, guns and gunpowder have been the deciding factor in human civilization for several hundred years, and until very recently, lead was the universal constant. Everything done, every advancement made, every improvement considered, was designed to incorporate lead. Like automobiles and gasoline, the firearm industry has singularly revolved around lead’s constant presence, seemingly from its inception.

By comparison, lead was a common ingredient in house paints until 1978. In 2021, we knew that lead is toxic. At Liberty Wildlife, we know that California condors have died a slow, agonizing, and arguably pointless death. No one can dispute that lead is dangerous, but reversing hundreds of years of precedent is a heady task. Every gun on every continent in every war since the bow gave way to the bullet has been designed, tested and perfected around the idea of using lead. Lead as a material is cheaper than copper, and since guns have been historically designed to use lead, lead bullets typically perform more effectively and at a far cheaper price. Copper is a lighter material and lacks some of the expansive characteristics that makes lead an effective killer. While “killer” sounds brutal, the fact that a lead bullet expands as it does when passing through a target makes it a more humane hunting tool because of it. Everything we thought we knew about firing a gun needs to be re-conceived to match the different qualities of copper and how they relate to ballistics. Copper can, and almost undoubtedly will, replace lead as the gold standard for ammunition, but recognizing that fact, and expediting it, are two different things. It’s almost like rethinking the wheel. It can certainly be done, but it takes time.

California banned lead ammunition from condor ranges in 2007. Most likely, other states will follow suit, regardless of whether there are endangered animals or not. All animals deserve our thoughtfulness. That said, the issue itself deserves thoughtfulness. Before lead can be completely removed from the equation, there needs to be a widespread, available, and affordable alternative. We must keep in mind that a lack of change could be the result of a current lack of options, rather than a lack of caring. As companies are forced to redesign both gun and bullet to suit the characteristics of copper rather than lead, both time and money will be consumed. The market, essentially, must undergo a complete shift – one that, while necessary, cannot be completed overnight. What do we do in the meantime? The only weapon more powerful than a gun is knowledge. This is a complex issue, for everyone involved: rehabber, hunter, environmentalist, manufacturer. The more knowledge we all have, of all sides, the better off we’ll be.


Kid Stuff

Nurturing Nature

By Carol Suits

Liberty Wildlife Volunteer

Wildlife in Winter
How do animals live in the winter? Watch this read-along book, Animals in Winter by Henrietta Bancroft , Richard G. Van Gelder, et al. Ages 4 – 8

You might also like to read this book, Birds in Winter (Bullfrog Books: What Happens in Winter?) by Jenny Fretland VanVoorst Ages 4 – 8

Have you looked for changes in wildlife behavior during the cold weather? Some animals hibernate, others migrate. Some don’t do either of these things and are easy to find near you. They adapt in a different way.

You can feed birds during cold weather this easy way! Cheerios bird feeders

Get Outside!
Find some interesting shaped rocks and make patterns or maybe a picture of your favorite wildlife!
Use colored markers or paint.

You can use markers to make interesting patterns.

These videos show you how to make lady bugs and other animals. Find some interesting shaped rocks outside. Wash and dry your rocks before you begin.

These rock paintings of owls were painted by a girl who visited Liberty Wildlife and gave them to us. She did a great job! Notice the different shaped rocks she found.


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