The wind chills here on the Maine coast have been dipping into the minus double digits. When we spotted a lone robin (a bird we don't often see in early January) with its feathers puffed up, plucking berries off a holly bush just a few feet from our front door, we grew worried. There aren't many visible berries left. Robins don't eat bird seed. Their preferred food (worms, larvae, caterpillars, beetles and other insects) isn't available right now. How would this robin survive the brutally cold days ahead?
We read up on robins and their winter behavior. Those who end up in northern New England at this time of year (having migrated from even farther north, generally) are said to travel in flocks, searching the countryside for berries on trees and shrubs, filling up on that fuel, and then moving on like nomads. According to the Massachusetts Audubon website (which says that it receives hundreds of messages about robin sightings each winter, some of which report hundreds of birds in a flock), "There isn't much one can feed robins in the winter. They are very adept at finding their preferred food and rarely visit feeding stations. During severe weather, robins may eat bread, raisins, and pieces of apples placed on the ground; but it is more likely that squirrels will find these treats first."
That was reassuring, except that this was one robin, on its own, looking vulnerable, and the reading on the thermometer (never mind the wind chill) was zero degrees. I remembered that we had an old apple sitting on the dining table. So I cut up the apple and set out the pieces near that holly bush. Within a few minutes, the robin was on the ground pecking at it.
Hmmmm, we thought. Do we have any raisins in the house? Nope. "What about frozen blueberries," Pamelia said. "And pieces of suet?"
By the next morning, after a trip to the store, we had added frozen blueberries, dried cranberries and cherries, suet crumbs and dried mealworms to the mix—and the robin started coming to feed three times a day.(Just for the record, we got the mealworms at Agway, not the grocery store.)
My perspective on extreme cold weather and how hard it is on wildlife—especially small birds—was altered several years ago by Bernd Heinrich's book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Here's what Bernd (who checked in the other day and told us that the weather at his cabin in western Maine has been bitterly cold) writes about chickadees and their daily battle to maintain enough body fat and energy to survive when the temperature plummets:
"[C]hickadees are already close to an energy edge at [32 degrees Fahrenheit), far from the lowest temperatures they might encounter during any winter night...[Researcher Susan Chaplain's] chickadees did not have sufficient caloric reserves in fat to make it through a night at [32 degrees F] if they continued to regulate the same body temperature at night as during the day. However, she discovered that...they stretched their fat reserves by lowering their body temperature to [86 to 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit from] the [107.6 degrees] of normally regulated body temperature....Nevertheless, even with the caloric savings from [self-induced] hypothermia, the chickadees' fat reserves in the morning were insufficient to last them through another day and night, such as could occur during a severe blizzard. To survive such commonly occurring emergencies or temperatures much lower than [32 degrees F] would require them to have a special shelter at night where air temperatures are higher and and convective cooling minimized and considerable energy would be saved."
So it's tough out there for songbirds. That's why we try to be conscientious about keeping our feeders filled and, on occasion, sharing our apples, dried fruit and frozen blueberries with avian visitors. We're curious to see how long our robin stays around. Any bird reports to share from your area?
Best Bird Photos of 2012 Just got the latest issue of Audubon, which features the winners of the magazine's annual photography contest. The grand champion was the cover photo below of a Northern flicker, taken by Alice Cahill. If you'd like to see others, check out this link to the Audubon website: http://www.audubonmagazine.org/multimedia/2012-photo-awards-top-100-0
Top 100 Science Strories of the Past Year (Cont.) Having give you numbers 100 through 70, we now continue our countdown of Discover magazine's rankings of the most important events in science in 2012:
69: The development of a drug that, by repairing a flawed protein, can cure about 4% of patients suffering from cystic fibrosis—that is, those patients whose disease is caused by that one particular protein mutation. Progress is being made on a drug that would help about 50% of people afflicted with cystic fibrosis.
68: The donation of two satellite telescopes to NASA by a U.S. spy organization called the National Reconnaissance Office. Upon receiving the telescopes, NASA discovered that the spy organization is using optics far superior to any ever developed by NASA, including those in the Hubble telescope.
67: Research suggesting that tigers develop stripes because of two proteins that work alternately as "activators" and "inhibitors" and thus stimulate skin cells to create bands of different color fur.
66: A study that calls into question earlier research showing that eating an extremely low-calorie diet prolongs life. The new research, done on rhesus monkeys, compared a low-cal group with a group eating a moderate, healthful diet; both groups lived the same amount of time. It's worth noting, however, that the study found that the low-cal group had a lower rate of cancer and diabetes—and worth reiterating that the low-cal group was being compared to a group that was eating a healthful diet.
65: The discovery of three amazing types of animals: the first native spider family identified in North America since 1890 (the hooked-leg spider, found by cave explorers in Oregon); the world's tiniest frog (Paedophryne amanuensis, the size of a housefly and found by an LSU herpetologist who heard it chirping in a Papua New Guinea forest); and a carnivorous sea sponge (Chondrocladia lyra, spotted 11,000 feet deep in the Pacific off the California coast by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Center).
64:The sighting of the most distant giant cluster of galaxies ever seen, dubbed El Gordo (the Fat One) and located about 7 billion light years away.
63: Encouraging progress in the fight against Alzheimer's disease through techniques such as stem-cell-based computer models and experiments on the workings of a damaging protein called tau.
62: A surge in cyber attacks, including attacks on Iran that appear to have emanated from the United States.
61: The revised assessment of the age of cave art using more advanced techniques. The new methodology revealed that some of the art is much older than previously thought. The illustration of a red disk in El Castillo cave in Spain was found to be 40,800 years old, making it, in Discover's words, "the oldest piece of European art by 5,000 years." The art is so old that there is now a debate over whether it was created by modern humans or by Neanderthals.
60: Improvement in masers, microwave-beam-producing devices that Discover calls "the laser's Cold War relative." Once too bulky to be practical, masers are now more compact and may lead to improvements in GPS systems, radio astronomy and devices used to test blood and the cleanliness of food and air.
Answer to the Last Puzzler No human ever looked at the sky through a telescope before 1608.
Today's Puzzler Louis Braille died 104 years ago this week at age 43. Blinded by an accident while playing with an awl at age four, he went on to invent a system of writing and reading that uses a code made up of six raised dots. What inspired him to invent this code?
a) the pattern of holes made by a woodpecker in a tree on the grounds of his school b) his work sewing buttons on jackets at his school's workshop c) a visit to his school by a soldier who told him of a 12-dot code system used by soldiers to pass instructions to each other at night