Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How do they do it?

A couple of rooster Ring-necked Pheasants strutting their stuff. They've got a great homeland: a 1,000-acre conservation reserve project in Pickaway County, planted heavily in native prairie grasses.

On the day that I stopped by the above locale, it was bitter cold. Perhaps 15 degrees, with a sharp wind whistling through the former Pickaway Plains prairie. I rather enjoy cold weather, and spend a lot of time outdoors in winter. But, it requires suitable garb and even with warm gloves, good boots and multiple layers one still gets chilled to the bone after a while, at least when temperatures plummet to the teens or below.

I got a bit too close for comfort for this old boy, and he's in the act of high-tailing it the other direction. And if you've ever seen one of these exotically gorgeous Asian pheasants put the pedal to the metal, you know that they can really scoot.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been filled with amazement at birds' ability to not only survive, but thrive, in conditions that are frostier than the inside of your icebox. Whether it's these pheasants picking leftover grain from an icy windswept field, or goldeneyes frolicking in water scarcely above the freezing mark, I still find it incredulous that feathered creatures can endure conditions that would kill you or I in short order.

These girls were the property of an especially lustrous and ebullient rooster pheasant, who seemed to keep close tabs on them.

This is a Trumpeter Swan, and I took the photo at the Wilds recently. While that place may be wild, these birds aren't, and the resident flock will hike right up to you. But their tameness allowed for a nice shot of one of the world's better insulated birds.

Bet you can't guess how many feathers a Trumpeter Swan has.

About 26,000!

Swans have a lot of feathers in part because they are so large, and it just takes lots of feathers to cover them up. For comparison, another much lesser species of waterfowl, the Mallard, has but 12,000 or so feathers.

And it is these feathers, each a marvel of nature's engineering, that keeps birds warm and toasty. Birds have three types of feathers: down, flight, and contour, and it's primarily the contour and down feathers that insulate them. The contour feathers form a densely layered protective casement around the bird; sort of like a built-in parka. These feathers are the frontline defense against wind and rain penetration.

The innermost layer of feathers is the down, and its fantastic insulating qualities are what allow birds to live in brutal northern climates. Down is very fine and fluffy, and forms a wonderfully warm coating of cold-repelling insulation under the contour feathers. Before the development of synthesized insulating material, various bird down - especially eider down - was heavily used in cold weather clothing.

They tell us to dress in layers in winter, but birds do so naturally.

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