For most of us who live in the high country the word “winter” conjures up visions of sitting around a warm fire, eating hot soup, or heading up a mountain on a perfect Colorado blue sky day dressed from head to toe in clothing that keeps us warm and toasty – no matter how frigid the weather might turn.
Not so if you’re one of our fine feathered friends! Oh, no. If you were one of the thousands of birds that make Eagle County your home for the winter, you would find a nice warm hole in a dense spruce tree. That’s the ticket for staying warm. No fire. No soup. No clothing. And, feathers can do just so much!
Even elk head down to lower elevations and bears hole up for the duration. But lots of feisty birds make Eagle County their winter home and get by each day foraging for any morsel they’re lucky enough to discover anywhere in their travels throughout the valley.
Eagle resident Joann Riggle is an avid birdwatcher. On any given day, she and her husband, Bob, will take off to count those little guys just for the fun of it. Depending upon the season the couple, with iPhone, pad and pencil in hand, will travel the state to get a count of the birds that migrate from one Colorado county to another.
“I count birds every time I go out,” admits Riggle who, in early October – in just one hour – counted 18 species of birds in the Brush Creek area in Eagle. “Cornell Lab of Ornithology has come up with a system of listing birds called ebird that I use on every single outing. I try to identify the bird I see, count it and put it on the ebird.org site whenever I go birding. That is becoming the most common way of keeping track.
“Cornell thinks of us, the birdwatchers, as citizen scientists and the bird lists that people turn in are monitored by people who know what birds are in each area. So, if someone enters a bird that is unusual or rare, these people will call you on it. They will email and ask questions about the bird that was seen and will request photographs, as well.”
Many species of birds spend their winter in our neighborhoods including several species of juncos, jays, such as the Steller’s jay and the Clark’s nutcracker and even hawks and eagles, to name a few.
Many of the birds we see here in the winter have spent their summer on Vail pass. “Pine Grosbeaks, Cather finches, Red Crossbills and several species of sparrows move from higher elevations during the winter,” explains Riggle. “Many can be seen around the Vail Transportation Center. Others like the White-Crowned and Lincoln sparrows hang out in the Eagle, Gypsum and Dotsero.
“Birds move down from Vail Pass because it’s too cold and because they’re having a hard time finding food at higher elevations. They come down to the valleys for food. They’re looking for seeds or berry crops and go wherever they can find them.”
How those little feathered guys keep warm on those cold winter days and nights when the wind is howling and we’re all bundled up is really fascinating. Think about those skinny legs. Why don’t they freeze? Those birds have adapted better than you imagine. To begin, they have distinctive scales on their feet and legs that help to minimize heat loss. Then, they sometimes stand on one leg and pull the other up under their feathers to stay warm. If it gets really cold, they squat on their perches and cover both legs. As well, the circulatory system in bird’s legs allows them to cope with the cold temperatures. And their circulatory vessels act like a radiator which insures that no heat is lost so the birds’ feet receive a constant supply of warm blood. This is the same circulatory system that allows ducks to swim in freezing water and not freeze their feet and legs.
And then there are the birds’ feathers which, coated in oil, are rain and snow proof and act like down jackets that hold heat to the body. Birds also have a special kind of white fat – different than human’s – that is used as a high-energy fuel to power the birds warming process – that, surprisingly, is shivering! When birds shiver, they produce five times more heat than normal and can maintain a normal body temperature – which is approximately 105 degrees – for six to eight hours. In fact, many birds crowd together at night in a small, tight space so they can share body heat.
“During a snow fall, birds like to go into spruce trees because they are so dense that they’re actually dry inside,” Riggle points out. “And, a lot of birds will go into a state of torpor during their sleeping time, when their bodily functions slow down to a point where they’re just barely alive. It helps them to conserve energy so they just don’t sit and shiver all night. It’s a quiet state.”
On sunny winter days, birds will take in that solar energy by turning their backs to the sun and raising their feathers, allowing the sun to heat the skin and feathers more efficiently.
Although, in the fall, many birds have stored a cache of food in various locations such as bark crevices, knotholes or pine needle clusters, providing a bird feeder, even a water source, can really make a difference for the birds that stick around and tough it out in winter. Food such as suet, seeds and other bird foods high in fat are a treasure trove.
Having some sort of feeder in your backyard can literally be a lifesaver for those winter visitors. According to Colorado Alpine & Wildflower Farm, the feeder height should be at least four to five feet off the ground to keep it out of reach of critters. And black-oil sunflower seeds attract the greatest number of birds as they have a high meat-to-shell ratio, which are nutritious and high in fat. The farm suggests offering a versatile wild bird blend like theirs that includes black-oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, white and red millet, sunflower seed and cracked corn.
Even in the frosty weather, you can bet that Riggle will be out and about– camera and binoculars in hand – keeping track of our winter visitors, just as she does in every season. And she’s on top of it all.
“Ten years ago it was very unusual to see a Bald Eagle. Now there at least three pairs nesting in Eagle County,” she says, excitedly. “They’re in Dotsero, Gypsum and Edwards. There are at least four baby eagles that were born Eagle Valley.
“We also have Great Horned owls here and you can see them in the winter. They mate in December and have babies in February.”
Riggle is like the town crier – of birds. She can tell you all about any bird that’s in Eagle County at anytime. She knows who stays for the winter, who leaves for the winter and when they’ll return, who’s sitting on eggs, where they nest and how many chicks are born. All you need to do is ask.
In fact, if you want to get in on Riggle’s adventures, inquire about participating in the Christmas Bird Count. Riggle and her fellow birders will lead the way.
Who knows, you may find yourself signing up for the ebird app.