When I started writing this, there was at least a foot of fresh snow on the ground with more in the forecast and the animals were heading back to doing whatever it is they do during this time of the year. Yet a week ago it was pushing 60 degrees in winter and I was in a t-shirt dreaming of small mouth bass fishing.
I began wondering if they were now suddenly confused. Did they animals start to think it was the beginnings of spring? Hungrily eating all of what they had stored in joy, hopping out of their shelter in anticipation that it was April. Only to find that when the temperature dropped to a chilly 10 degrees the next day, they would return to their barren dens, and immediately question those poor life decisions they made in haste? Or did they know better. Did they instinctively know that this was just a freak occurrence? Just a brief three day warm up so they can look for stale bagels and old french fries at the bottom of a parking lot dumpster in suburbia?
Well we don’t have to worry anymore, because winter is finally here!
There’s always been something calming about standing in the middle of the forest during a snowfall. As a kid I had this fort on the side of a mountain in the middle of no where, completely hidden from view, the coolest fort ever! Needless to say that when I went back to find it as an adult, I was in awe to see it was only 2 and 1/2 feet off the ground. Also turns out it was not even close to the middle of ‘nowhere’, since it sat on the side of the undeveloped acreage at the bottom of my grandmothers hill. Waist high, completely visible on the side of that 30 foot rock ledge. I stood there in amazement at this ridiculous thing, trying to stifle a laugh at how we had no idea that that my mother could easily see me and my brother from the kitchen window, pretending we were shooting deer out of it with fake stick rifles.
Oh how we thought we were the greatest “hunters” ever, trying to set rabbit snares and tracking deer through some imaginary tundra 150 feet from the house on a snow day from school. Cant beat the imagination of kids. Except most days I would go running to that fort alone as early as I could before my brother woke up, where I knew it would be quiet and I could sit. Mind you this “fort” had no real roof either, it was just a depression in a rock hanging off the hill. Nevertheless I would sit there with my sketchbook, sometimes even with an umbrella in heavy snow(which clearly gave my location away to whatever adult looked for me in the front yard of a 6 year old kids Antarctica) as I was trying to draw on snow fallen paper. When I got tired of that I would start following animal tracks in the snow.
I would draw pictures of tracks I found then try to figure out who’s they were. There were times I would wait for an a fox or a squirrel to play in the snow and then I would run over and inspect the fresh tracks so that I could be sure who made them next time I saw them. When I was tired of that.. Id start to follow them, and see where they lead. As a child many of us didn’t have the constant supervision of the children today, we were allowed to play in the woods alone with our common sense as long as we came home for lunch when you were hungry, and obeyed the one rule you never ignored; always come home before dark. Not to say that daytime didn’t have its own problems, one day I followed a deer through the woods hoping she would lead me to a cache of her antlered friends, and the next thing I know I hear cracking underneath me as my boot hit an air pocket in the frozen mud and she took off. I hadn’t realized that in my day dreaming of catching her, I was about to start walking on the pond we would ice skate on. I immediately slanted my eyes angrily at the vanishing doe who once again eluded me across the frozen water.
A heavy snowfall is quiet, but it’s a different kind of quiet. You can hike a little ways with the snow crunching under your boots all excited to get to your destination off that trail, but every so often you find yourself standing there, just listening. When me and my husband go out hunting I can sit there for hours, listening for a hoof step hitting a rock, a branch break or a fall away call. Listening to everything and nothing all at once, knowing what you are listening for as soon as you hear it.
While you may not always be able to hear the snow falling, you can feel it all around you. It muffles sounds of nature as it blankets everything, but in turn enhances others you may normally ignore. You can hear water moving in the underground springs that never freeze, cardinals singing as they dart through the branches in the bare canopy above, and immediately you realize that in the dead of winter, there is plenty of life.
When I first flipped through the pages of this book in my local library, I immediately checked it out, took it home and read it three times. It reminded me so much of being a kid trying to haphazardly study nature, except with the scientific aspect of it added in. Heinrich is almost like a kid himself in this book, getting excited to wake up before dawn and stalk a specific bird to find their nest, so that later in the season when its abandoned he can deconstruct it and see what they made it out of. Counting every branch, seed, feather and foreign material used so he can add it to his study.
“Winter World” is packed with so much information that you will want to read it more than once, information not only about the animals themselves but the habitats in which they live in.
Did you know that deer mice will take over and rebuild bird nests to serve as grain bins for them to hoard food into?
Heinrich writes, “I also found a goldfinch nest filled to the brim with about 1,200 unidentified small black seeds, 254 milkweed seeds and one sunflower seed. (I planted some of the small black seeds and they grew into common roadside ragweed, whose pollen is a common allergen.)”
Heinrich talks about entering abandoned beaver dens to see what the inside was constructed of, and notes that there was no fecal matter to be found and that most were made with two levels; upper and lower. He also conducts experiments to test his theories. Such as heating a potato to simulate the body of a flying squirrel so that he can examine its cooling rates. Not to say that a potato and a flying squirrel are one in the same, but to be able to place it into their abandoned nest to see how insulated it is, by measuring the falling temperature of the potato itself.
And sure, we all know that animals hibernate in winter, but how many of us know what that actually means? This book goes into great detail on all different aspects of hibernation through the pages, including being inside a bear den to take vitals on a mother and cub only to have the cub wake up and want to play.
Heinrich writes, “Animals in hibernation torpor do not show the EEG sleep patterns. Instead, as their body temperature drops and they enter torpor, there is a gradual reduction of voltage until brain electrical activity eventually disappears, as if they were dead. However, although there is no spontaneous brain activity (Lyman and Chatfield 1953), the animals must still be able to generate at least some electrical activity in the nervous system, or else they could never arouse.”
Some may say this books research goes too far when they read how Heinrich fills a road killed chipmunks cheeks with sunflower seeds so he can get an estimated count on what they can hold, or now he heats a fully feathered dead kinglet so that he can measure the cooling rate as the temperature falls… then he plucks the dead animal, heats it and measures it once more, so he can compare his results. He finds that they have 4.5 times more feather mass committed to insulation than they have to flight.
Between the hand drawn sketches, the wealth of information, the sometimes hilarious scenarios; I highly recommend this winter read for your cabin fever. Instead of wishing for spring, we might as well embrace the current winter.