Dressed for Winter

It was a gray day in early January and outside a blizzard roared. I felt all snug and warm drinking tea and staring out into the white out. I often wonder on days like that how the animals survive the extremes of cold wind and blowing snow. I like the cold and feel confident that I can dress for it when out on a day long ski or snowshoe, but I have gortex in my arsenal of weather defense. What does an animal do when temperatures drop below freezing?  It must strip them of their body heat and be a real challenge to just stay alive.

So it was with more than a little start that I saw something big and white perched in a quaking aspen out in the middle of the field. I assumed hawk until I got out the binoculars and focused on a large barred owl dressed in its lighter winter plumage. Its not unusual to see a barred owl late in the afternoon perched in a tree on the side of the road. I suppose rodents crossing the road would be a quick and easy snack for owls on the go. But in those cases I was driving by and just got enough of a glimpse to identify the owl and think, wow, cool. But this owl was sitting within binocular range right out my kitchen window.

I starred at him for a while, absorbing his exact shape, dark eyes, puffed plumage, until the binoculars started to feel heavy. I sighed and was about to turn away to go back to work when he took flight. Wings spread, they are much bigger birds and seem to soar effortlessly on the air as opposed to the pumping rise of a hawk. I sucked in my breath. Instead of disappearing into the forest, he was flying toward the house. He settled in a tree about 30 feet from the kitchen window and… okay maybe its my imagination but… seemed to be staring right back at me. I looked at him through the binoculars and now he was very close. I could see the tiny feathers of his face and his deep dark eyes.

I called my son to come up and look at him. Where? he said, in that tone of voice that suggests my pending senility had arrived. Right there, I pointed. He stared. And then I looked and realized that the owl was so white that he was almost invisible against the light-colored bark of the tree in the falling snow. Had I not followed his flight there I might not have seen him myself. I finally pointed out the spot in the tree where the owl perched and handed over the binoculars and got a satisfying, ohhh, wow.

Owls are masters of adaptation. They have large eyes set on the front of their faces for binocular vision and acute eye site. You would think this was unnecessary for a nocturnal hunter, but owls have exceptional vision even in near darkness because the retinas of their eyes are packed with low light sensitive rods. They also have fringed flight feathers that muffle the sound of their flight and a good range of neck rotation that allows them to watch for prey without moving their whole body and giving away their position. They are adapted for the cold with a thick layer of downy feathers that they fluff up and the trapped air acts as an extra layer of insulation.

In fact this owl didn’t seem the least bothered by the cold, wind or snow. He seemed content to sit right out in the thick of it and watch the world go by. So in answer to my first question about how animals survive the extremes of winter, the obvious answer is that they are already dressed for it.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.

1 thought on “Dressed for Winter

  1. Lovely story! I didn’t know Barred Owls can change their plumage so in the winter. Thanks!

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