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The ‘Siberian Express’ Survivalists

By Amy Renfranz (dearnaturalist@gmail.com)



Article Published: Jan. 17, 2013 | Modified: Jan. 17, 2013
The ‘Siberian Express’ Survivalists

This chickadee is fully utilizing dead air to keep itself warm.

Photo by Sarah at Wild Birds Unlimited



I do not know your feelings on the matter, dear reader, but I am very excited about the oncoming winter storm. The storm, which has been dubbed the “Siberian Express” by some local forecasters, might leave us with high temperatures in the single digits.

Finally, I will get to wear the parka that my Floridian mother bought for me before I moved to Boone 10 years ago.

It is at least four inches thick, full of down feathers and meant to be worn by Arctic Circle explorers. Bless my mother’s heart.

A question came in this week from a local reader in regards to how wildlife can survive such harsh weather. Luckily for our wildlife, four inches of fur or feathers come as a standard in their bodily design.

Dear Ranger Amy: What do animals do during a bad storm or when it’s very cold outside? Thanks! - C.T.

Many of the High Country’s summer residents leave before it gets cold outside. The list of these migrants is long: hummingbirds, monarch butterflies, ladybugs, bats, hawks and many more. Even earthworms make their own vertical migration.

Those that stick it out and are active during winter have developed many adaptations to survive and succeed.

Many mammals shed their summer coats and grow a new winter coat. This winter coat has two layers. Longer guard hairs act as a waterproof, and the soft, woolly undercoat provides insulation from the cold – however, not in the way you might think.

Did you know a deer actually has more hair per square inch in the summer? Each hair on a deer’s winter coat is hollow, like a tiny straw, which holds highly insulating dead air. These hollow hairs therefore make the winter coat much thicker, because each hair is more substantial.

To better understand how dead air works, look at your own double-paned windows. In each window, there is dead air between the layers of glass. Since air is a poor conductor of heat, the dead air acts as an insulator; keeping warm air inside your house just as deer fur keeps warm air close to their bodies.

Birds also use dead air to their advantage. On cold days, they puff out their plumage, creating a layer of dead air between their feathers. It is so effective that a chickadee’s breast will measure at 105 degrees Fahrenheit even if the surrounding air is below freezing.

Chickadees also experience controlled hypothermia, or torpor, during very cold days.

During bad storms, wildlife seeks out shelter. Naturalists and hunters have found herds of deer curled up in ditches. Other animals seek out cover under rhododendron or in burrows.

Some birds and squirrels huddle together in tree cavities. The birds that do not use tree cavities simply hang on for dear life. Their talons are perfect for locking onto branches and can sustain even during hurricane-force winds.

Winter is certainly not devoid of wild creatures. Many creatures will successfully survive their ride on the Siberian Express, thanks to their amazing adaptations and their ability to hide.



If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (dearnaturalist@gmail.com) All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails!

Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

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