By David Cronenwett
The transition out of summer seems gradual at first, but by October, most of our wildflowers and migrant birds have disappeared. As energy continues to dissipate from the landscape due to increasingly shorter days, the country rapidly slides into dormancy. Eventually, the first storms descend from the north, dumping snow and ushering arctic air into Montana. This is a time of long nights and sustained cold across the Northern Hemisphere and it is no secret that the winter season profoundly affects how creatures like birds and other wildlife experience the world.
Animals that remain here must have coping strategies and adaptations to survive winter. Many birds, particularly small passerines like chickadees and nuthatches, need to continuously feed their high metabolisms during short days and find ways to conserve precious body heat at night. To accomplish this daily task, some species harvest stored food caches, forage over large areas and at night, huddle together in a state of “regulated hypothermia.” However, severe cold snaps can lay waste to populations of even the best winter-adapted bird species if conditions are right. Wildlife in the north are always at risk of becoming “winter kill” and of course, one creature’s misfortune can be to the benefit of another, particularly scavengers. For me, this unforgiving side of winter makes the season more vivid and real than the others and observing our resident birds now, amplifies feelings of wonder and kinship toward them.
A few years back, I spent six months living alone in an isolated cabin on the Rocky Mountain Front. During my stay, there were memorable winter storms that bore down on the country with tremendous fury. Heavy snow whipped by the Front’s legendary wind can create dangerous whiteout conditions which, combined with ambient temperatures well below zero, produce extremely difficult circumstances for wildlife. On one such morning, the thermometer read -22 with a foot and a half of new powder on the ground. Looking into the swirling maelstrom from the cabin window, I saw mountain and black capped chickadees visiting the limber pines; feeding, taking shelter and socializing. They regularly showed up during my time there, but to observe them going about their business in such brutal conditions that day was especially moving.
While people today are largely insulated from the harshest realities of winter, this was not always so. Our ancestors living in the northern world of the past had a very different experience of the season, one more akin to that of wild animals where avoiding starvation and making it to spring was never a guarantee. It should be no surprise then that near the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night in the north, there are almost universal cultural expressions of warmth, renewal, light, rebirth and compassion. The cozy socializing we engage in around this time—the feasting and the lights—is a longstanding, humble response to winter’s firm grasp. There is simply no other season that encourages such introspection.
Birds and people in the north coevolved with winter over long stretches of time, developing adaptions via biological and cultural evolution. However, there are certainly limits to what humans and wildlife can adapt to. In our warming world, reliably cold winters with predictable snowpack are becoming less common while extreme and sudden weather events like rapid thaws followed by rain, with sudden refreezing are more frequent. The more unstable winter becomes, the greater the strain on wildlife and ecosystems that are adapted to the cold. While we often discuss the impact to landscapes and wildlife from climate change, it is also worth considering the effects of a winterless-world on a multitude of human culture and northern traditions. In the arctic, a place where climate shift is more pronounced than anywhere, Inuit hunters are observing profoundly negative changes in the timing of ice formation, snowpack depth and animal behavior. How would the loss of an entire way of life like that of the Inuit, be measured?
These days, I consider each major storm and arctic front as something of a gift in the face of an uncertain future. During this winter solstice season, traditionally considered one of renewal and kindness, it may be a good idea to deeply consider what kind of world we are creating for nature as well as ourselves…and if it is one that we truly want.