Winter World, the latest book by Bernd Heinrich, whose books Mind of the Raven and Why We Run I’ve reviewed before, is not as ambitious nor as eye-opening as his previous works, which focused on animal intelligence, endurance and sensitivity. It’s more laid back, and that’s perhaps fitting for this time of the year when the deep freeze here in Ontario seems to be interminable. Heinrich’s lovely illustrations, like the one above, instil in the reader profound respect and love for the book’s subjects — the many animals who winter outdoors in the Great White North.

The book is mainly about adaptability. It explains how birds, mammals, amphibians and insects are able to survive and even thrive in relentlessly cold and snow-covered lands. The chipmunk above, for example, builds a 12-foot burrow system that includes a nest chamber three feet underground, several food storage chambers, and escape tunnels as well as the main channel. They hibernate, not when it’s cold, necessarily, but when there’s a low food supply.

Hibernating mammals like the arctic squirrel awaken and warm themselves up to their usual 37† body temperature periodically during the winter, for no apparent reason except to get REM sleep.

My friend the beaver, creator of the fine work next door to us (a bog), builds a conical lodge that looks much like a tepee and functions similarly. Up to ten feet high, in three feet of water, it freezes solid in winter, protecting the beavers from the elements and predators, with a small air vent at the top. Entrance is only from under the ice, which is why beavers cut trees and drag them to the pond so they are accessible from under the ice all winter long (beavers don’t hibernate, and eat up to 50lbs of wood per day each).

Wren males build the nest framework, and in some cases build multiple nest frameworks. Then the females choose their mates, and do the interior lining and finishing on one selected nest, to seal the marriage.

The book is an engaging read with some amazing stories. At its heart it is also a mystery. There are many methods that Northern animals use to conserve energy, and science is able to show how in combination they allow so many species to live comfortable lives in what we would consider inhospitable surroundings. Heinrich’s mystery is the golden-crowned kinglet, a tiny (not much more than 1″ long with feathers, weighing 4-6 grams), energetic bird that is seen periodically in small groups in Northern winters. These birds defy Heinrich’s scientific explanations and investigations — with such tiny weight and size and such huge energy use they should simply not be able to survive in cold climates. The mystery remains unsolved — at least until Heinrich’s next book.

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2 Responses to WINTER WORLD

  1. Nui says:

    Looking out of my apartment window, (and the view is mostly white because of the snow, which according to my logic should have melted), it has never failed to amaze me that I keep seeing these birds that are constantly flying around this tree in front of a church. I’ve sadly seen some of these birds fallen frozen in the snow, but it’s really amazing that there are others that keep on flying throughout the winter. I’ve always asked myself, why don’t they migrate to a warmer place? Isn’t that what they are supposed to do?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Nui: In true Darwinian fashion, most species of birds have tried both hibernation and migration, and in cases where both are equally effective (e.g. geese) some still do both. There are huge risks entailed in migration as well. I’ve been told that most of the birds you see frozen have been injured (90% by either window collisions or cars). The very few exceptions tend to be from the species (notably sparrows and chickadees) which have become dependent on human bird feeders, only to find the feeders have moved away or lost interest. Apparently bird-lovers ask people who are not prepared to put out food regularly all winter long, not to put it out at all. What really amazes me is that there are hundreds, thousands of birds and other creatures hibernating all around us, but they’re so well secreted we rarely see them.

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