A Thing With Feathers

Feather by Heather HinamEven if you can somehow go through your entire life without ever seeing a bird, chances are very good that you will still have some experience with feathers. Whether displayed in a  hatband, stuffed into a pillow or quilt or tied together at the end of a duster, feathers are a fairly ubiquitous part of the world around us and certainly the defining characteristic of the group of flying vertebrates we know today as birds.

But, have you ever given much thought to where they came from?

As it turns out, feathers have been around a lot longer than most people realize. As paleontologists find more fossils every year to slot into the puzzle that is the evolution of life on this planet, the picture becomes clearer and stories start to make sense.

When it comes to the story of the evolution of feathers, the first thing you have to remember is that birds are modern dinosaurs, having evolved from the lineage known as Theropods, whose ranks include those Jurassic Park villains Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus rex.  However, what didn’t make it into the movies was the fact that, at the very least, Velociraptor was not only ferocious, but fluffy. At first, this detail was inferred from the discovery that many of its ancestors were feathered and some, like the bizarre, bi-plane like creature Microraptor gui, could fly. Then, a discovery of quill nobs, a trait seen in modern birds, on the forearm bones of one specimen confirmed it. Now an accurate representation of Velociraptor is something like a sleek, predatory ostrich.

Even more recent discoveries have put the assumption of a scaly hide in Tyrannosaurus rex into doubt. While they haven’t found specimens of this iconic dinosaur with feathers yet, a cousin from about 125 million years old China, named Yutyrannus most definitely was feathered. About the size of a bus, these are the largest feathered dinosaurs known to date.

So how far back do feathers go? In time, we can trace their existence at least 160 million years to chicken-like dinosaurs called Anchiornis, but these critters already had the highly complex barbed feathers we see in modern birds today.  Most evolutionary biologists agree that feathers likely started out as single, hollow,  hair-like filaments that became branched and barbed as needed over time. These have been found in many species, most notably, Sciurumimus, a dinosaur found very near the base of the Theropod branch. Described for the first time just last year, this species shows a spectacularly preserved coat of dense, filamentous plumes. Finding feathers like these near the base of the branch suggests that maybe more advanced Theropods, including T-rex had some kind of plumage. Still, we don’t know just how far back down the tree they go.

The point of origin keeps getting pushed closer and closer to the root of at least the dinosaur’s evolutionary tree thanks to feather filaments being found in some Ornisthischian dinosaurs, like the Triceratops cousin, Psittacosaurus, who are about as far removed from Theropods and modern birds as a dinosaur can be. Actually, they’re starting to find feathers all over the dinosaur family tree, leaving us to wonder if they predate the group altogether. In fact, the genes responsible for taking an undifferentiated plate of keratin and turning it into a feather has been found in crocodilians, who although they are birds’ closest living relatives, branched off from the group well over 250 million years ago.

So what did these prehistoric feathers look like? Structurally, early feathers started out as simple, hollow strands, growing out from a plate of keratin embedded in the skin. More advanced feathers split into barbs, looking like fluffy ostrich plumes. Eventually, those barbs developed tiny barbules that allowed their wearers to ‘zip them up’, turning them into strong, but flexible sheets that eventually were co-opted into airfoils. This same evolutionary progression can be seen today in the growth of every bird embryo.

Most fascinating, however is the fact that paleontologists now know what colour some of these plumes were. Recent work with Anchiornis turned up microscopic pockets of pigment called melanozomes. By comparing these ancient structures to those known today, they managed to work out that not only was Anchiornis about the size of a chicken, it actually kind of looked like one, a bright tableau of shiny black and white spangles with a flash of red on a crest. Who knows, maybe in time, we’ll see our very own field guide to dinosaur plumage. Either way, you can’t help but marvel at these remarkable, ancient, ingenious  and unarguably beautiful innovations of evolution.

Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.

 

In the Bleak Midwinter

Insulation - chickadee warming its feetIt was minus 40 Celsius with the wind chill the other morning. The bite of the air stung any carelessly exposed skin and the snow squeaked like Styrofoam underfoot. Wrapped up in my shearling coat, I couldn’t help but watch in fascination as a nearby mountain ash came alive with foraging Pine Grosbeaks and the cheerful chirps of chickadees and nuthatches filled the frosty air, reminding me just how incredible these tiny winter residents really are.

Chickadees, for example, weigh not much more than 10 g, about the same as two nickles. Yet, they can survive quite comfortably in temperatures that would leave us frostbitten and shivering.

Winter birds accomplish this seemingly unfathomable feat in a number of different ways. Firstly, they’re wearing a down coat. Those of you who own one know just how warm they can be and for birds, that insulation is part of the standard package. Feathers are a remarkable insulator. Comprising only about 5 – 7 % of a bird’s body weight (that’s half a gram on a chickadee), the air trapped within them makes up 95% of that weight’s volume, creating a thick layer of dead air that traps heat generated by the body, preventing much of its loss even on the coldest of days. Many winter residents grow a thicker winter coat, much like mammals, augmenting their feather count by up to 50 %. Fluffing feathers increases their insulation factor even further (about 30%), making them a very efficient way to keep warm in the winter, so efficient, in fact, some birds, like Great Gray Owl can actually overheat in the summer.

While some species, like Ruffed Grouse and many owls, grow feathers, along their legs and feet, like fluffy winter boots,  most songbirds’ legs are bare, thin sticks of sinew, blood and bone exposed to the elements. Although birds can tuck these delicate structures up into the warm cover of down when temperatures really plummet, most of the time they’re out in the open. So, why don’t they freeze and why isn’t all of a bird’s body heat lost through these naked limbs? Bird legs are marvels of biological efficiency, having been streamlined by millennia of evolution into sleek structures with very little muscle and few nerves, using instead pulley systems of tendons and bone to accomplish movement. These tissues, along with their scaly coverings have very little moisture and are less likely to freeze than flesh and skin.

Birds also have cold feet. Using a common natural system called a countercurrent heat exchange, our feathered friends keep their feet upwards of ten to twenty degrees colder than their core body temperature. Countercurrent Heat Exchange System in a bird's leg. by Heather HinamWarm arterial blood on its way to the feet pass right next to colder blood coming back towards the body through the veins. Heat wants to reach a point of equilibrium, so warmth from the arteries passes into the veins which carries it back into the body. Because the flows are running opposite to each other, it’s impossible for the heat balance to ever reach equilibrium, so by the time the blood gets to the feet, it’s much cooler than when it entered the leg and all that precious body heat has been kept where it needs to be, in the core.

However, as most of us who have experienced a true northern winter know, a coat alone isn’t always enough. There has to be heat to trap in order for insulation to work over the long term. To generate that heat, many winter birds shiver constantly when they’re not moving. Ravens, whose feather count isn’t as high as some of its more fluffy distant cousins, actually shiver constantly, even when flying, the repeated contractions of their massive pectoral muscles acting like a furnace. Powering that furnace takes energy and cold-weather specialists meet those needs by upping their metabolic rate, in some species, to several times their normal levels. As a result, food is always a going concern in winter.

Many winter residents can only forage for food during the day, so keeping the internal fires burning at night can be a challenge.  Finding a warm place to settle in for the night reduces those metabolic needs.  Densely-packed spruce boughs or old tree cavities are perfect nighttime microclimates and many birds use them. Chickadees will often take it a step further, piling as many fluffy little birds as possible into an old woodpecker hole to share body heat, which may just be too much cuteness in one place. Ruffed Grouse take advantage of the insulative capacity of snow in a somewhat comical way. One cold nights, the birds dive head first into a drift and tunnel deeper into the snow, creating a cave known as a kieppi. Temperatures inside the kieppi can hover just around the freezing mark, even when it’s minus thirty outside.

So as we close in on the shortest day of the year and sink deeper into the cold clutches of winter, take a moment, now and then, to marvel at those tiny survivalists outside your window. Much of the technology that keeps us from succumbing to winter’s icy grip was adapted from them. Nature truly is our greatest teacher.

Living on the Edge

Ecotone - a zone of transition, of overlapOur world is in a constant state of transition, both in time and space. Most of us are more aware of the former, noting the passing of minutes, days and years. However, for many species, it’s changes in habitat across space that have a significant impact on their survival.

Life needs edges, places where the shadows of the forest recede in the face of the sun, where waves of grasses dip their roots in murky waters, where ripples lap incessantly at a rock face, etching away the sand of the future. Edges create variety and when it comes to ecology, variety is truly the spice of life, at least in terms of its diversity.

The technical term for a transition zone between two types of habitat is ecotone. It’s a place where two communities meet, knitting together elements of each other, often bringing the best of both worlds.

Some ecotones are abrupt, like the striking boundary between forest edge and farmer’s field, a change so sudden, it can easily be seen from the air. Others are more gradual, such as the subtle gradation of shades from soft, sunny aspen leaves to the dark mossy needles of the boreal forest as one moves pole-ward throughout much of the northern hemisphere.  Some edges we we can’t even see, like the lines between distinct communities layered on top of each other in the depths of a lake. It’s all a matter of perspective. What might seem like a continuum to us, may be a stark contract to another species.  It all depends on the resources you value.

Regardless of how they’re defined, edges are important places. They’re interfaces, areas where two distinct worlds can influence each other for better or worse. Edge-effects can be positive or negative, depending on the organism whose point of view you are looking from and what type of edge it is.

Naturally occurring ecotones, like a reed bed bordering a lake shore, are hugely important areas, a bridge between the land and watery worlds, creating an interface where a greater number of species can thrive than would otherwise exist without these marshes. Whether they’re lines of trees along a winding stream, offering a windbreak in an otherwise open field, or a wet meadow cutting its way through a thick forest, edges can also provide natural thoroughfares, ancient pathways followed by generations of animals.

However, that same linear accessibility can also become a problem when the edge is not natural. Clear-cuts slicing into an normally intact forest, seismic lines cross-crossing though arctic tundra or farmland pushing into what’s left of tall-grass prairie can create novel and unnatural ecotones, opening corridors for predators and invasive species, irrevocably changing the landscape. In contrast, what may be right-of-ways for some organisms may also be barriers for others, with human-caused edges limiting normally wider-ranging movements of many habitat-sensitive species, such as songbirds and woodland caribou.

Anyway you cut it, the world is full of edges, both dividing and uniting this remarkable patchwork of landscapes in all three dimensions. Understanding the depth of that complexity and our impacts on it has kept biologists busy for decades and will continue to do so for many more to come. I, for one, welcome the chance to continue the exploration.

Restless Heart

Zugunruhe - migratory restlessnessTo regular readers of this blog, my love of obscure words is not a new thing. Over the last few years, I’ve been creating these ‘definition images’ as my way of bringing life to some of the wonders of nature and the words used to describe them.

Looking back over them all, I realized, much to my surprise, that I’ve crafted more than 70 of them, covering just about every letter of the alphabet. That discovery has led me to challenge myself to visualize words starting with more uncommon letters, like  X, Qand Z. Kind of like an artistic variation on Scrabble.

Autumn has given me the perfect opportunity to address one of my favourite Z words.  It’s another one of those terms that comes up only in the discussion of natural history and animal behaviour and it never fails to raise a few eyebrows if you manage to slip it into regular conversation.

The word is Zugunruhe.

Zugunruhe is a combination of two German words = Zug, meaning to move or migrate and Unruhe, meaning restlessness and it together, the sum is really the combination of the parts: migratory restlessness. For a behavioural ecologist, it’s a word that tends to conjure up thoughts of autumn, or more specifically, late summer.

As the earth lumbers along its orbital path and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere find ourselves canting away from the sun’s warmth, many creatures get antsy. Birds especially are seized by a sudden disquiet and activity levels skyrocket. Sleep patterns change and if the individuals are kept in a cage, they start orienting their activity in the direction they should be migrating in. Most species go through a period of excessive feeding, needing to pack away as much energy as aerodynamics will allow for the journey that inevitably lay ahead. We see it all around us in the clouds of blackbirds roiling through the air or flocks of geese descending on a recently-harvested field. This period of restlessness is referred to as Zugunruhe by biologists who study animal behaviour and it’s a phenomenon observed both in the spring and in the fall, just prior to the mass migrations that move millions of birds along north-south flyways over the continent.

Here, in the boreal forest, it’s a phenomenon that usually starts in August. Our summers are relatively short and as soon as breeding is over, the preparation of the twice-yearly journey gets underway, especially in songbirds, who have to travel thousands of kilometres to Central and South America. With their time here so fleeting and the journey so long and fraught with danger, you can’t help but wonder, why go through all the trouble?

Why not stay in the tropics, where the weather is favourable and save all of the energy and risk associated with long-distance travel? The answer to that question likely varies to a certain degree between species; but evidence suggests that food, or rather the lack of it, was likely the driver behind the evolution of long-distance migration in many birds.

Most of today’s migratory species likely evolved near the equator, enjoying consistently tolerable weather and relatively abundant food. However, as populations started to grow and segment into different species, the pressure on food sources grew to a point where the survival of some depended on searching out new resources. The only place to go was away, into the temperate zones north and south of the tropics. Those that did, discovered abundant resources, millions of insects, and a glut of fruit and vegetation. The problem was it only lasts for a short period of time, forcing those explorers to retreat back to the warm haven to the south during the winter months.

Over millenia, these paths have been extended and entrenched by generations of birds winging their way along now well-established routes.  As those paths have become increasingly ensconced in the collective memories of each species, so has the irrepressible need to travel those routes that spurs everything from hummingbirds to harriers on their way twice a year.

With migration in full swing here in Manitoba, the period of zugunruhe is actually over; but once balance of night and day swings back into the favour of the light, the millions of birds enjoying the warmth of their winter homes will feel the inexorable pull once again, the restlessness building until one day, they’ll have no choice but to take to the air and find their way back to us.

Sweetness and Light

Portrait of Fireweed by Heather HinamThe first blush of spring flowers has long since faded, leaving forests and fields to settle into the rich greens and sunny yellows of mid-summer. Still, the decidedly verdant palette is broken now and then by a showy splash of pink, startling against the endless green, like flame in the darkness.

These tall, fuschia spires are fireweed, nature’s phoenix, rising out of the ashes of destruction and bringing colour back to the land. They also happen to be one of my favourite flowers; but not for a reason that’s immediately obvious. They’re actually rather tasty.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time visiting a friend in the Yukon. We had an amazing time exploring the western edge of the territory, camping out in the shadow of the Rockies in the still long days of early fall.

In the airport on the way home, I spotted it, jars of a clear pink, gleaming in the fluorescent light of the gift shop: fireweed jelly. I had to try it and after tasting its delicate, sweet flavour, I had to figure out how to make it.

Turns out, the second part of that equation was harder than I expected it to be. Over 10 years ago, the internet was not as vast and I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere. After much searching, I ended up finding what I needed in a dusty old text squirrelled away in the Winnipeg public library.  I actually found a lot of ways to cook wild edibles in that book; but most coveted was my recipe that will work for any petal-based jelly.

We’ve been blessed with an abundance of fireweed this summer in Grindstone; but I’ve been so busy with other work that I haven’t had time to go out and harvest. It’s fairly time-consuming labour. Picking the flowers is easy enough. You just need a pair of scissors, long pants and something to store the feathery spikes in. Once you get them home, the fun part starts: separating the blossoms from the stem. I usually end up spending a good hour plucking the flowers, one by one, dropping them into a bowl and setting the green bits (which are also edible) aside. By the end, your fingers will be died purple and the rest of you will be crawling with crab spiders and leaf hoppers; but it will be worth it in the end, trust me.

Once you have your blossoms, stuff as many as you can into a pint sealer jar and cover the lot with boiling water.  Let the developing tea steep for 24 hours in a dark space (to keep the sunlight from washing out the delicate colour). Strain out the now leeched-white blossoms and pour the liquid into a deep pot, adding 1 1/2 cups of sugar for every cup of tea (3 cups to a pint). Add a teaspoon of lemon juice and bring to a rolling boil, letting it go for a good minute. Add 6 oz of liquid pectic to the mix and boil hard for another minute or so. Take it off the heat and skim any foam before carefully filling sealer jars and proceed to can it according to direction.

This recipe doesn’t make much, but it’s flavour is worth it. If you’re concerned about the colour once you’ve strained out the blossoms (sometimes it can look a little brownish), you can add a tablespoon or so of strawberry juice. It won’t affect the taste, but will keep it nice and pink.

Fireweed is one of those flowers that just seems designed to bring joy wherever it grows. As suggested by its name, its rhizomic habit makes them one of the first colonizers to bring colour back to a fire-blackened forest, springing up through the ash from runners in the underlying soil.

This year, the bright blossoms brought beauty back to the devastation wrought by Manitoba Hydro after they cleared the area around their power lines of shrubs and trees in my area. As my friend, Cindy mentions in her recent post on the same subject, thanks to their tenacious rhizomes that can knit their way through the soil up to almost half a metre deep, fireweed managed to find its way into the centre of London after the city was ruined in places by World War II bombs. To me this hardy denizen of northern forests and fields is a reminder to all of us that even in the face of humanity at its ugliest and most destructive, nature always manages to find a way to bring light back to the earth.

Moonlight Becomes You

Luna Moth by Heather HinamSome childhood memories just seem to stick with you, lodging in your grey matter and coming back to haunt you at random intervals.

One that has been showing up quite frequently on the mental playlist lately harkens all the way back to a stint at Girl Guide Camp at Bird’s Hill Park, just northeast of Winnipeg over 20 years ago. It was a dark and muggy mid-June night as we trucked off as a group of giggling girls to the public washrooms. In the orange haze of the sodium lights, we heard a shriek of fright and immediately thought a bear had found its way into the campsite. Nervous, we crept around the corner toward the source of the sound and found girls from another troupe cowering under the lights over the door, pointing to the wall.

The source of their terror? Luna moths.

Looking back, I can see how these fluttering, green giants could scare the bejeepers out of a bunch of city girls. However, I was more fascinated than frightened by these enormous moths; still am.

I went a couple decades without seeing them again until one June day a few years ago. A friend came into work at the resort on Hecla Island and announced that they had a giant green moth on their door screen. Needless to say, I was over there with the camera in short order. The image above was the result.

There’s just something compelling about these ghostly green insects that float, like the moonbeams their named for, through the early summer nights.  With a wingspan of about 4 inches, they’re one of the largest moths in Canada and arguably one of the most beautiful; but few people get the chance to see them. They’re nocturnal and only exist in their adult form for about a week, so to catch a glimpse of these beauties, timing is truly everything.

They actually have a lot in common with a much more abundant and much less revered insect that emerges a few weeks later here in the north woods, namely the fishfly. Like its very distant cousin, adult luna moths have one purpose: to mate and deposit eggs to ensure the next generation. Like fishflies, these Saturnid moths have no mouths and do not feed. Their large, fuzzy bodies and consequently larger energy reserves from their larval stage allow them to live longer than the fragile fishfly.

In the dark labyrinth of the nighttime forest, finding a suitable mate is hard work, so male lunas can travel kilometres, tasting the air with their antennae for the pheromones drifting from a ‘wick’ extending from the abdomen of a waiting female.  Because they’re needed for this function, the antennae of male luna moths are much larger and fluffier than those of females, making the sexes fairly easy to tell apart. The moth pictured above is a female. Once the sexes find each other, they lock together in copulation for up to 20 hours before she sets off to lay her eggs. A female can produce up to 300 eggs, scattering them around the forest, a half dozen or so at a time, on the underside of birch leaves to incubate for almost two weeks.

The larvae are just as impressive as the adults, a bright, almost fluorescent green caterpillar that you can find trundling along the trunks and branches of its host plant, munching away on the leaves and growing up to 4 inches long by the time it sheds its exoskeleton for the fifth time (a process known as ecdysis).

Up here in Manitoba, where the summers are not long enough to allow for two generations, lunas overwinter as pupae in their cocoons. It isn’t until the following June that they will emerge from this stasis, all crumpled and fragile. Slowly, over at least half an hour, the new moth will pump hemolymph (insect blood) into their wings, ‘blowing them up’ until they harden into their characteristic green sails. It’s an event you can witness first-hand if you’re lucky enough to find a caterpillar before it pupates and keep it at home over winter. I’m actually planning to try and do just that later this summer so that I won’t miss the emergence of one of my favourite denizens of the dark.