Speaking of Nature: Frozen feather weather is here

  • This blue jay had the most fetching feather frozen upside down to its crest and flipping around in the breeze. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON

  • This cardinal’s crest was the first evidence of what had happened with that weekend’s crazy weather. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON


Monday, January 22, 2018

There are many scientific disciplines that require the scientists who have chosen those specific fields of study to use evidence to construct stories of events that happened in the past. Paleontologists are perhaps the most famous of these; using fossils to construct entire ecosystems that existed millions of years ago. Archaeologists are similarly skilled and they can often build models of human cultures and civilizations that vanished thousands of years ago.

When I was a student at UMass Amherst, I occasionally took classes that allowed me to study the past by interpreting evidence that I could see with my own eyes in the present. This is relatively easy to do in areas where stone walls can be located, but there are also hints of past land use that can provide hints of previous human activities. As an example, if you are walking through a forest and suddenly find yourself looking at an apple tree, it is quite likely that you are standing on a home site abandoned so long ago that evidence of the house is almost entirely gone.

Tracks in the mud at the edge of a stream can tell you what animals have been in the area since the last rain. Tracks in snow are even better because the snow can record so much more information. Beavers and muskrats leave evidence of their feeding in the form of clipped cattails and gnawed trees. Even scars on tree trunks can tell you if a bear has climbed the tree or a deer has polished his antlers on it.

All of these are examples of the inanimate world preserving evidence of the creatures that live in it, but I have a story of the exact opposite. This story is one in which the animals that live around my house preserved evidence of the weather that they had experienced over an 18-hour period. All were birds and all showed exactly the same signs of what had happened to them.

On Friday, Jan. 12, the weather went haywire. At one point on the drive home from work, I saw that the thermometer in my car read 62 degrees. Then, as the afternoon progressed, it started to rain and then eventually pour. The rain was heavy, and sustained for hours, which caused the birds that could not find shelter to become soaked.

At 9 p.m. Friday, the temperature was 41 degrees and it was raining. By 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, the temperature was 15 degrees and it was snowing. A half-hour later, when the birds started to show up for breakfast, I started to see some remarkably ridiculous “hairdos.” The cardinals and blue jays that arrived at my porch railings all had crest feathers that were frozen at odd angles. Then, the doves appeared and I really started to see something funny.

Most birds, when they settle down for the night, will go through a little preening regimen, and with doves this can result in feathers being pulled out. Doves have a habit of shedding feathers rather easily, so a few feathers here and there is not unusual. What was unusual, however, was the fact that the wet feathers clung to the wet birds.

The doves probably didn’t notice this in the dark, but during the night, when the temperature dropped 25 degrees, the feathers froze to the birds. It’s a testament to how well insulated birds are with a fluffy coating of feathers, but it did result in some odd-looking doves come morning. One bird in particular looked like the head of a feather duster, flying and walking around my deck.

One after another the birds came in, and I would say about half of the doves showed the same sort of feathers that had frozen to them at wonky angles. Almost every blue jay had goofy crest feathers and all of the cardinals were similarly affected. As Saturday transitioned into Sunday, the temperature fell even further, and on Sunday morning the birds still had the pulled feathers frozen to them.

What was very interesting to see was the fact that the little birds (the finches and sparrows) did not have any frozen feathers. Other small birds, like chickadees and woodpeckers, can get inside tree cavities to escape the worst weather, but finches and sparrows are stuck outside. They must have been small enough that they could burrow deep into the thickest evergreen trees and stay out of the weather. The larger birds apparently couldn’t escape the rain.

A couple days later, we had another snowstorm and I was able to stay home from school and watch the birds in the morning. Enough time had passed to allow the birds to shed any evidence of the weather they had endured. I wouldn’t be surprised if body heat had eventually melted enough of the ice to allow the frozen feathers to fall off. Lucky for me, I have pictures of the frozen feathers that were frozen in time by my camera.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.