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Nature’s ‘snowbirders’ eying up winter rentals

Through junior high school I was an avid reader. I couldn’t wait for a book fair to order as many paperbacks as I could. When I moved on to high school with the increasing time commitment to athletics, reading slowed. But my never-ending interest in nature, wildlife, and birds finds me reading and researching more. That has allowed me to follow up on some unique things that you may not know.

Each bird species builds a specific type of nest. A robin nest in Pennsylvania is nearly the same as one in upstate New York. The bluebird pair in my backyard uses the needles from under the nearby white pine. Almost the entire nest. The cup shaped nest is the same as all bluebirds, just made of needles. The tree swallows nesting in my front nest box build a similar cupped nest, also from needles but they always line the cup with feathers. They appear to love duck and chicken feathers. Studies have shown they’ll search a two- or three-mile radius just to find them. Who’d have known how important those feathers are?

Red-eyed vireos build their nests in a fork of a low tree where the thin limbs hold it in place. Most vireo nests are then “adorned” with pieces of bald-faced hornet nests. Last year’s unused papery nests are easy to find before all the leaves cover the trees and more important, they no longer have any hornets occupying them. Birds, squirrels, or chipmunks will avoid going anywhere near an active hornet nest knowing the stings could or would kill them. Vireos search for those abandoned hornet nests, strip pieces of the “paper,” and then put them on their own new nests. To a squirrel, the vireo nest just might be a new hornet nest being built so the vireo’s “stuccoing” is a great deterrent. Who’d have known they were so “crafty?”

One fairly common, but rarely seen mammal in the Times News area, is the flying squirrel. They are strictly nocturnal. In fact, all 30 of the flying squirrel species in the world are nocturnal. But there are about 100 other species of squirrels in the world and not one of them is adapted for flying (well, technically gliding) and they are all diurnal. Nature obviously has selected the flying squirrel’s gliding trait for their survival. Who knew?

Switching gears. Snapping turtles will seek the muddy bottom of ponds to hibernate for five or six months, and with a low metabolic rate in hibernation, are able to absorb enough oxygen through the exposed, thinner skin of their neck. Wow.

Back to the cold. Wood frogs and gray tree frogs also hibernate. But they only crawl an inch or two under leaf litter. Contractors using backhoes in winter know the ground can be frozen solid for a foot or two. These amphibians also then freeze. Up to 65 percent of the water in their bodies freezes. Somehow they can keep the water inside the cells from freezing. However, if the cells do freeze, they will die. They can only survive if they don’t get below 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Snow cover over the forest floor leaf mat usually keeps that from happening.

How about the black bear. They den up for winter and in hibernation, don’t defecate or urinate, but all the while undergo respiration to maintain a relatively normal body temperature. How? Boy of boy, could you imagine if we knew how to do this, folks could be put into “hibernation” for space travel or until a “chemo” is perfected, etc.

Well, there are so many things that we don’t have answers to, yet most species, without too much human interference, will adapt and survive to produce progeny to replace them.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: A squirrel’s leafy nest is called a (n): A. Burrito. B. Sanctuary. C. Drey. D. Realm.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Many insects like a praying mantis have five eyes. Two large compound eyes and three much smaller simple eyes.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

The gray tree frog certainly is a master at protective coloration, but living in the Times News area's cold winters it has adapted for winter survival as well. It actually freezes in winter with 65 percent of its body water frozen and yet still survives until warmer spring temperatures. BARRY REED PHOTOS
In your travels the next few weeks you may notice banded woolly bear caterpillars crossing some roads or biking paths. They have fed the last few months and now will find a protected area to curl up for the winter. They survive under a rotting log or litter using glycerol as an antifreeze. They can actually freeze and thaw a few times each winter.
Snapping turtles, as winter approaches, will move to a pond bottom and begin absorbing oxygen through the thinner skin of their neck to sustain them through a much lower metabolism in the very cold water.
Above: A gray squirrel, red squirrel, and fox squirrel (all found in Pennsylvania) are some of the 100 squirrel species in the world that are diurnal (active in daylight.) Not one of them is adapted for gliding like the strictly nocturnal flying squirrels.
Left: Black bears will feed heavily now on grasses, mast, and farmer's grain (where available) to build up layers of fat for the winter months. They will den in early winter and will not defecate or urinate while in that winter slumber.