Claremore Daily Progress

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January 24, 2011

How do animals deal with Oklahoma's weather swings?

Our furry and feathered friends are well suited for winter weather, still they don’t mind a little help now and then

CLAREMORE — Branches rustled in the darkness and I turned, looking toward the bush in my snow-covered front yard. Something had moved and it wasn’t man-sized. I wondered briefly about the neighbor’s cat, but knew if it were locked out in this freezing cold it would be at my feet now or on my front porch mewing for shelter.

The squirrels and skunks seemed to have gone... wherever it is they go when it snows.

Another light rustling assured me the sound was likely coming from a bird.

I shivered and pulled my coat more tightly around me as I walked to the house. I couldn’t help but think about the birds huddled in the bare branches of bushes and trees.

Were their winter feathers enough insulation to keep them warm, even in these single digit temperatures?

Sure, there are birds in much colder climates than ours, but Oklahoma is known for its wide temperature swings. How do our furry and feathered friends adapt to a climate that may run in the 60s or 70s one day then drop down below freezing with wind chill factors below zero within a 24-hour period?

Should I be putting birdseed and nuts out for the birds and the squirrels? Do they depend on humans for food?

The next day, I decided to take my questions to an expert.

I visited the Rogers State University Nature Reserve which is home to several species of birds along with deer and other wildlife.

Conservation Educator Robert Gibbs teaches at the Reserve.

“The feathers are designed like a big blanket and they help shield out the wind and the moisture,” said Gibbs. “You always see birds preening and picking at their feathers. The feathers act like a big insulating blanket.”

Because birds are warm-blooded like we are, those feathers trap their body heat while also keeping out wind and moisture from rain or snow.

“They are able to stand most of the drastic changes in weather,” he said. “Their food supply gives them lots of fat and lots of energy.”

Gibbs said birds will change their diet somewhat according to the season and what food is available, but migration patterns also keeps birds close to favored food supplies.

“We have a lot of summer birds leave and winter birds come in,” said Gibbs.

Birds migrate south to Oklahoma from the north while our summer birds here migrate further south.

“Our summer birds, like our state bird, the scissortale, go further south to warmer weather where their food supply is still available,” said Gibbs.

There are species that stay year round. Cardinals are still here eating well, said Gibbs. They are “hitting the sunflower seed feeders well” and also eat berries.

Northern species like the cedar waxwing come down to Oklahoma where their food supply is more constant in winter months.

“They gather in pretty big flocks. They’re just a touch smaller than a cardinal and have a little tuft or crest on their heads,” said Gibbs. “They have a little black mask on them and then a touch of red on the wing tip.”

It’s that touch that gives the wax wing the look that lends the bird its name.

Also down from the north are junkos.

“The junkos are here right now. They’re the ones you’ll see that are black over gray. You’ll see them in big groups as well and coming to the feeders. Sunflower seed is a big thing for them as well.”

While birds will come to feeders, they get most of their food from the natural environment. They don’t depend on us to feed them.

“They still get a lot of their main food supply from their surroundings,” said Gibbs. “We put the bird seed out for our enjoyment. “

Gibbs said sometimes it takes a few days for birds to find a new food source, but if you want them to come to your yard, create the habitat with the food, the water and the shelter they want and need.

“A lot of people now are planting native vegetation to act as a food supply,” said Gibbs.

Native plantings last longer and provide habitat and food for birds and wildlife. Its a way to make your property pretty and easy care at the same time.

To really draw birds in, add feeders with their favorite snack. Sunflower seeds are popular with many species.

“If you’ve got a good food supply and they see it, they will come by and get some. It’s more like a snack and feed station than a complete sustaining of their lives,” said Gibbs. “The birds are getting a lot of food supply out in nature.”

At the Teaching Garden in the RSU Nature Reserve, Gibbs keeps bird feeders, native vegetation and a moving water supply that doesn’t freeze so that the birds and other wildlife will come in close and students can see them.

Food , water and shelter are key, said Gibbs.

“They’ll hang around for our enjoyment and it’s easier for them.”

The deer at the Reserve are less afraid of humans than out in the wild. They’ve been fed and have been accustomed to seeing people.

“In the wintertime we’ll see a lot of the deer, a lot of squirrel and rabbits,” said Gibbs.

He maintains “snack and treat stations to draw wildlife” for educational opportunities when kids come to the reserve.

“We stay busy year-round doing school groups of all ages.”


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