The Marvelous in Nature

This and that

kittens

Today’s photo is of the kittens, Oliver and Merlin, who are still small enough to comfortably fit on the desk and “help” me work. They like to watch the mouse on the computer screen, which is very cute but does make it difficult to see what one is doing. They’re also indiscriminate about what they’re stepping on, and can find all sorts of buttons and shortcuts that you had no idea existed. Usually for functions that you really didn’t want to do, too.

I’ve been saving up a few random things to throw together in a post of assorted non-nature things, or at least not directly nature. The first is that I want to make a slightly advance notice of the next edition of I and the Bird, which will be hosted by Jeffrey A. Gordon at his blog this week. IATB #90 will be posted on Thursday (and I’ll put the direct link here once it’s up). The rest of his blog is worth a browse, too, he’s got some fabulous photos.

Second is delayed notice of the most recent Festival of the Trees, #30, hosted at A Neotropical Savanna. Lots of interesting posts and blogs included, so I encourage folks to pop over and poke around. Carnivals are a great way to discover new blogs, perhaps even find one that will become your new favourite read.

If you peer closely at the monitor in the photo, you’ll see I was checking out my WordPress stats page. On the right-hand side of the stats graph there’s a gigantic spike in hits. I’d been bumbling along at about an average of 130-140 page views per day (as WordPress tracks it, anyway). Then yesterday, out of the blue, I got a whopping 995 hits. This is more than I got during the entire month of February, back just shortly after I’d started the blog. I always have a bunch of visitors that come through Google searches (the popular one at the moment is inquiring about female deer with antlers), but the vast majority of the hits yesterday were referred from StumbleUpon, a social-networking site that allows you to “bookmark” pages you really like, which are then shared with other people who follow your selections, or can be “stumbled” by others looking for random pages submitted by other users in categories they’re interested in. The page of mine that had been stumbled was my previous one, on goldfinches. And the person who bookmarked it to StumbleUpon was Wrenaissance Woman, of Wrenaissance Reflections. A huge thank you to Wren for including my blog in her bookmarks. I need to sign up with StumbleUpon myself and start using it myself, something I’d been meaning to do but hadn’t gotten around to yet.

superior scribbler award

I’d like to acknowledge receipt of an award, initially given to me by Voice of the Turtle, but seconded by Huckleberry Days, both regular reads of mine and also worthy recipients in their own right. I lean heavily on nature to provide me with content, but Turtle has a way of being able to pull creative and interesting content from her own head (I’m sure my readers would be bored to tears if I tried that). Huckleberry approaches blog subjects in a similar manner to myself, only lives out in the beautiful and diverse Fraser River Delta in British Columbia.

The “rules” are thus:

1. Each Superior Scribbler should in turn pass the award on to 5 most-deserving blog friends.

2. Each Superior Scribbler should link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received the award.

3. Each Superior Scribbler should display the award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains the award.

4. Each blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award should visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky list. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives this prestigious honor!

5. Each Superior Scribbler should post these rules on his/her blog.

The blog’s first “rule” asks that the recipient pass the award on to five others. Awards are not only recognition of good blogging, they’re also a way for bloggers to receive a bit of free promotion and in turn offer it to other blogs that they feel are worthy reads. I read many blogs, so picking just five is tough. Huckleberry has already picked three that would be high on my list: Wanderin’ Weeta, Beetles in the Bush and Myrmecos. Here are a few others that tend to be the first ones read from my blogroll when I’ve only got a few minutes. As per my usual, recipients can choose to participate or not as they wish.

1. Jennifer at A Passion for Nature
2. Hugh at Rock Paper Lizard (I especially enjoy his Interpreter posts, which I think would make a great book, like Stories from the Vinyl Cafe)
3. Liza Lee at It’s Just Me (a very humble title, previously The Egret’s Nest)
4. Tim at From the Faraway, Nearby
5. Nina at Nature Remains (whose poetic prose is perfect for an award highlight excellent writing)

I just want to also mention that it bothers me that the stripes on the Scribbler’s one arm are coloured in, while on the other they aren’t.

Tarnished gold

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Photo by Dan

Feeding birds in one’s yard makes for excellent photo opportunities. The birds come in close, and are distracted by the food, so you can sneak in and get some great up-close shots, providing you don’t mind having the feeders in the background. Sometimes, if you anticipate where the birds are going to land, you can get some good photos of them coming in and waiting their turns for the feeders, too. Between Dan and myself, I have quite a few pictures of birds at feeders. Many don’t make it up to the blog, for various reasons. A few do, however, particularly ones of new birds, or interesting behaviours or observations.

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Photo by Dan

Today’s post falls into the latter, sort of. We had a cold snap roll in, and along with the four inches of snow it brought, the temperatures have dropped to about -10 oC (14 oF). It’s the sort of weather that drives birds to feeders in droves. We’ve had some 20+ Blue Jays visiting the platform feeders regularly, a dozen American Tree Sparrows, and the regular chickadees, nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers. Also the above American Goldfinches. Back in the fall I bought a nyger sock for the finches, partially because it was cheap (it was $10, filled, while the traditional tubes were $12, empty), but also because the tube that we had, hand-me-downed from my mom, had accidentally gotten stepped on at some point in our settling-in process, and we needed something to replace it.

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I’d never tried a sock feeder before, but had read positive things about them, one being that they can serve more birds than a tube can, since the tube has a limited number of openings to draw seed through, but a sock can be perched on from any angle and seed taken from anywhere. Right now all we have are goldfinches coming to the yard, but pretty much any finch interested in nyger seed may use the feeder, since finches in general are acrobats when it comes to eating, able to hang upside down from a branch (or nyger sock) to access seeds. Because of the way the feeder was hung next to a branch, though, we also spotted an American Tree Sparrow perched and reaching over to grab a few seeds from it. I didn’t get photos of him, which is too bad.

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Masses of goldfinches aren’t especially unusual, as we can probably expect to see them at the feeders anytime we have a bit of inclement weather this winter, but these were the first real feeding frenzies of the season. I’m thinking I may go out and get a second sock, since even though more can cram on a sock than a tube, there were still more birds perched on the branches than there were on the feeder. Goldfinches are a squabbly bunch, a bit territorial once they’ve picked out a good feeding spot, reluctant to let another get too close in case they try to usurp it. You see that with Common Redpolls, too, the other finch that regularly comes around in large flocks. Pine Siskins are another species that favours nyger, but tend not to visit in quite the numbers that the other two do. We had siskins flying over the house in late fall but haven’t heard any lately. They were forecasted to leave the province for locales further south by the Ontario Field Ornithologists‘ resident Finch Forecaster, Ron Pittaway, so we may not get many, or any at all. Redpolls should show up, though, and Dan heard one in the yard today. It hasn’t made a visit to the feeder yet, however.

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Goldfinches at this time of year are often mistaken for a different species of bird. Most people think of the bright gold-and-black male when they think goldfinch, but in the fall the males moult out all their bright feathers and adopt the drab plumage of the females for the winter. It’s better camouflage than the flashy colours, and while the yellow really attracts the attention of the girls, there’s no advantage to being bright at this time of year. You can still tell the males from the females if you look carefully. Males will often retain some of the brighter yellow around their face and throats, but failing that, they will have crisp black wings, while females will generally have brown-black wings. You can also tell age – adults have relatively white wingbars (sometimes tinged brown), while those of birds hatched this summer will be mostly brownish. Hatch-year males won’t show all that yellow around the face, only the adults will (it’s “left over” from their summer breeding plumage), which is another indicator of age/sex class. Of course, like with anything, there will always be intermediates that you may not be sure about. Most of the birds coming to our feeder today seemed to be adult males, though many were sort of intermediate. Only one I was definitively sure was a young bird, shown above.

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Photo by Dan

Although we have goldfinches in our yards year-round, they are a migratory species. The birds we have at our feeders right now aren’t the ones that will be breeding here next summer, but short of banding studies where you can mark individuals, it’s difficult to tell the difference. They’re short-distance migrants, moving just far enough south for it to feel warm compared to where they came from. Being regular feeder-visitors, they are perhaps able to get by a bit further north than they would naturally go, since their foraging is supplemented by artificial food sources (the source is artificial, not the food). However, don’t worry about your food running out or removing your feeders if you’re gone for a while – birds are resourceful, and they’ll just move on to the next feeder or food source, or head on further south if there’s not enough where they are.

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Dan commented this evening after taking Raven out to pee that he can’t help but keep envisioning some poor goldfinch sitting on a branch somewhere, shivering its tail feathers off, and he just doesn’t know how they do it. Staying warm in the winter is definitely a challenge. Right now the temperature outside is -17.5 oC (0.5 oF), and still dropping. Even bundled up to my max, with my long johns and down jacket and a couple sweaters and two pairs of socks, I would still freeze if I just sat still outside all night. So Dan’s question is a valid one – just how do the little birds do it?

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They actually employ a few strategies to make it through cold winter nights. The first is in the form of adding extra insulation by fluffing up all their feathers. In doing so they trap air against their skin. Air is an excellent insulator, and is the premise behind the functionality of a down jacket – down works so well because it traps air in all the tiny little gaps between the fluffy feather barbs. Fluffing their feathers is a bird’s equivalent of throwing on an extra coat.

The second is an evolutionary adaptation. The arteries and veins that go down to their feet run side-by-side down the leg. The feet, exposed to the ambient temperatures as they are, can get quite cold. As the blood from the body flows through the artery down to the feet, the blood that’s in the feet runs back to the body in the vein right beside it. The heat in the arterial blood gets transferred to the heat in the venous blood, so that the venous blood is warm when it reenters the body, and the arterial blood is cold when it reaches the feet. Often, in very cold temperatures, the blood in the feet may be only just above freezing – just enough to keep the tissues in the feet from freezing and developing gangrene. There are no muscles in the feet, only tendons and bone (the muscles that control the toes are located up on the thigh and are protected by feathers), so keeping the feet warm isn’t as important, as long as they don’t freeze. By reducing the temperature of the blood servicing the feet the bird is able to avoid unwanted heat loss through their uninsulated skin.

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And finally, they seek out sheltered spots, out of the wind and snow, to spend the night. This could be tucked up in the protection of some evergreen branches, or against a trunk, or in a shrub beside a snowbank. Some birds might use tree cavities or bird boxes. By minimizing their exposure to wind and other weather they can reduce the amount of heat lost. As well, birds that huddle up against a tree trunk or other solid object can benefit from the small amount of infrared radiation (heat) the tree or object builds up during the day and then releases overnight (you’ll sometimes see rings of melted snow around the base of a tree trunk, which are caused by this infrared radiation). They stuff themselves with seeds during the day so that they have a huge store of energy available for overnight. They spend the night shivering, which can burn off as much as 7 to 15% of their body weight – so it’s imperative that they put on that equivalent during their foraging during the day. This is like a 150 lb person burning off 15 lbs overnight while they sleep – and so having to pack on 15 lbs of fat during the day to accommodate for it (otherwise you’d get real thin real quick). Although we think of shivering as a bad thing, it is an animal’s normal way of generating extra heat in cold conditions, since they can’t just curl up by the fire or pull up another duvet. Birds really are amazing critters, surviving in conditions we would consider unimaginable.

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The birdfeeders are hung just outside the windows where we can see them easily from indoors. The cats like to sit on the windowsill and watch, as well. The buzzing activity at the nyger feeder caught Merlin’s attention, and he sat and watched them for a while as they darted in and out, squabbling and scattering and coming back again. We don’t let them out to wander, so this will probably be as close as Merlin will ever get to a bird (at least, I hope so), but he seemed content to just birdwatch.

Green Christmas trees

Christmas tree farm

Since we’ve been together, Dan and I have always got a real Christmas tree for our place at the holidays, usually on the first weekend of December. This year was no different in that respect. We both love the smell of evergreens, and the Christmas tree is probably one of my favourite things about the holidays. We decided not to do a gift exchange this year, since finances are tighter while our careers are in transition, opting to spend some time doing things together instead. One of the things I really wanted to do was cut our own Christmas tree.

I have this vague memory from when I was young, probably less than ten based on the haziness of the recollection, of going out with my family to a cut-your-own-tree farm and trudging through the snow looking for a nice tree. Actually, most of what I remember is sipping hot chocolate from the store after returning, and a general sense of having enjoyed the outing with my family. Perhaps the memory never happened, but in any case I have this notion about going out to cut your own tree. I persuaded Dan that this year, instead of just going down to the tree lot in town, we should take the dog and go out to the local cut-your-own farm. I could only find one in the listings for the area, with the next closest being nearly an hour away. Surely there had to be more than that, but if there were, they were being very secretive about it. So we headed down to this one.

We initially missed seeing the sign, propped as it was against the side of the building on the ground. The main sign (and presumably their main business most of the year) was for a fishing and hunting supply shop. It seemed busy, though, with well over a dozen cars parked in the lot outside. We had trouble finding a spot.

Christmas tree farm

It wasn’t immediately obvious which way we were supposed to go, so Dan went in to ask someone in the store. They indicated that we should catch a ride on the horse-drawn wagon that would be leaving shortly from just outside the store. We’d seen the horses harnessed up to a long red hay wagon when we pulled up. Two beautiful black percherons, stout and powerful. I’ve always had a soft spot for draft horses, and large horses in general. If I were ever to get a horse – which I probably won’t, unless it lived at my sister’s place and I rode it when I visited her – it would be a grey thoroughbred draft cross. My favourite horse I ever rode regularly was a tall, retired grey thoroughbred gelding at the stable where I took lessons. I loved his character, and the two of us got on fabulously.

Christmas tree farm

We climbed on the wagon along with a couple other families. Raven sat at our feet on a small pile of hay that had come loose from the bales. She wasn’t sure what to make of this, as the wagon bounced along over the uneven ground. Dan kept a hand on her in case she took a notion to go visit with some of the other wagon’s passengers (people are her favouritest thing, after food), but she probably would’ve been fine, so focused was she on keeping her balance, and watching the landscape roll by.

Christmas tree farm

We weren’t actually taken very far, and could probably have walked there on our own in less time than it took to wait for the wagon and be driven there, but it was still fun. It’s not every day that I get to ride on a horse-drawn wagon. In fact, I can’t recall the last time. Dan commented that they ought to be charging more for their trees if they’re giving free wagon rides and free hot chocolate in the store. I suppose what they save by not having to cut the trees themselves and drive them out to a lot somewhere they can put toward these things. It was a nice touch, and I think the kids, especially, enjoyed it.

Christmas tree farm

We all hopped off the wagon when it arrived at the back tree fields. The horses and wagon waited there for a bit so that people could load up their trees and have them driven back when they’d found one. I suspect for a family with kids this would be a perk, although, as I said, it wasn’t all that far. I had called ahead of coming down to make sure we could bring Raven, and the guy who answered said, “Sure! Bring your husband, too! The dog’s welcome to run around, but your husband must be leashed.” We made the mistake of letting Raven off her leash before we were sufficiently far from the other families, and she immediately dashed over to say hello to the kids. She sees other people so infrequently that while she doesn’t jump up on us anymore, we haven’t really been able to train her not to jump on others, either, and she gets so excited by new people she just can’t help herself. Fortunately the kids took it well and the family were good sports (I always worry about that).

Christmas tree hunting

We wandered out through the stands of evergreens. Pines were the predominant species, probably because they grow easily and quickly. Dan and I both prefer the shorter needles of spruce, so we walked past all the pines without looking at them too closely, hunting for the scattered groups of spruce trees. We examined a few in the field where we were dropped off, then moved back in the direction of the store to walk through another field. It looked like perhaps the farm hadn’t been in the habit of pruning their trees into the stereotypical Christmas tree shape, as there were a lot that would do Charlie Brown proud. Finally we spotted some good-looking trees set away from the other fields in their own little patch. Not sure if they were fair game, Dan returned to the store to ask if they were cutable. Getting the okay, we returned and walked through.

Christmas tree with nest

We found three that looked good and would do, but just as we were returning to the second one, which we’d settled on, we spotted a fourth a short distance away, tucked behind another tree so we’d missed it on the first walk-through. It had good colour, good shape, and good height (an important consideration), but when I walked around to check its other side…

Bird's nest in Christmas tree

…there was a bird’s nest nestled in the branches! It’s like it was meant to be. Dan sawed off the bottom, then collected the nest from the branch and handed it to me so he could drag the tree back without it getting damaged. We’re not sure what species built the nest, although an educated guess might be Blue Jay. It’s not a robin (no mud), or a catbird (no bark strips), but there are a few other species that size that would build similar-looking nests. There is a program in Ontario called the Ontario Nest Record Scheme that collects data cards from anyone in Ontario who wants to fill one out for a nest they find. It’s been running for several decades, and back in the 80s the organizers published a two-volume set of books on the characteristics of Ontario nests based on data submitted for the scheme. The descriptors for the Blue Jay (the average, of course; there are always exceptions) are primarily in evergreens, in small trees with narrow diameter trunks (4 or less inches; 10 or less centimeters), in crotches near the top of the tree, and placed near or against the trunk. This nest fits all these characteristics except it was midway up the tree, not at the top. It also says nests are bulky cups lined with plant rootlets, which this one is. So I’m thinking Blue Jay, but we won’t ever really know.

Christmas tree

I went inside and paid for the tree while Dan secured it to the roof of the car (while I am normally not an advocate of SUV-type vehicles, Dan bought his Jeep with the intention that it may be used off-road during fieldwork; I do have to admit that it comes in handy when moving big or bulky things, and we’re appreciating the 4WD in the winter conditions on the slippery dirt road. Our next one will be electric). The nest sat on the floor between my feet. When we got home we pulled out the tree stand, sawed off an extra few inches so that it would fit without touching the ceiling, clipped a few of the branches on the backside (it must have grown during the drive home, surely, it didn’t seem that large when we cut it), gave it some water, set the nest back on the branch it came from, and are letting it settle in now before we decorate it. We had to rearrange the furniture a bit to accommodate its larger-than-expected girth. Next year we’ll have to take a measuring tape to check diameter.

After getting home and unloading the tree, we grabbed our skates and headed down to the lake for an hour or so. We had a few warm days last week, but the last couple have been below freezing and the lake in the vicinity of our little bay remains solid. There was a light dusting of snow on the ice this afternoon, but most of it is due tonight and into tomorrow. We’ll need to start shoveling our bay soon, and will be restricted to whatever area we clear, but today we were still able to skate freely on the lake. And once it started to get dark, we came back inside and curled up with a toasty mug of hot chocolate. It was a nice way to end the afternoon.

Future Christmas trees

In behind the spot where we finally found our tree we noticed a field with Christmas-trees-to-be growing in it. These trees were young, perhaps only a couple years old. When we cut the base off ours I counted the rings; it was 13 years old. It’s a little sobering to consider that this tree, which has spent the last 13 years growing in that field, hosting bird families, watching the seasons pass, will spend just three or four weeks inside as our Christmas tree, and then be discarded. There was a time when people turned to fake trees instead, in part feeling that they were more environmentally friendly, less wasteful, than live trees. However, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way now, with the general sentiment being the opposite.

Fake trees require a lot of petroleum to produce and then to ship around the world, fossil fuels that are irreplaceable and contribute to our greenhouse gas problem. Real trees, however, while they’re growing remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are generally (though not always) grown close to home, cutting down on transport fuel. The only fuel cut-your-own trees use is what you burn driving there to cut it. They are renewable, once all the trees from a field have been cleared new ones can be planted in their place. They provide homes for wildlife while they’re growing, as many species like these young habitats. And when the tree becomes old and ratty, as all Christmas trees inevitably do, real trees are biodegradable, and are often chipped into mulch, while fake ones sit for decades, not decomposing in a landfill.

Of course, the ultimate in green Christmas trees are ones with root balls still attached. These live trees spend their month in your home over Christmas, and then can be planted back out in your yard to continue growing, breathing in carbon dioxide, providing homes for animals. I don’t know of any places around Kingston that offer live trees, or that would have been my choice this year.

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Addendum: Evergreen ferns

Marginal Shield Fern fruitdots

While out walking Raven this afternoon I had another, closer look at the ferns that were mentioned in yesterday’s post, specifically the Marginal Shield Fern, Dryopteris marginalis. When I took the first set of photos, I hadn’t thought to check the underside of the fronds for the spore pores, so I did that today. One of the references I used for the last post was A Field Guide to the Familiar by Gale Lawrence. In it she indicates that an easy way to tell the three species apart is by the patterns of the spore cases on the underside of the subleaflets. The pattern of these dots – actually called sori (singular sorus) but also commonly referred to as fruitdots, which I find inexplicably amusing – is unique to each species (at least each of these three). As I stated yesterday, those of the Marginal Shield Fern are lined up along the margins of the subleaflet, giving the fern both its common and scientific names. You can see that in the photo above. The fruitdots are empty now, the ferns having cast out their spores to the wind in late fall, but the cases remain affixed to the evergreen fronds. Not all species of fern have fruitdots, some curl over the edges of the subleaflets or other means of protecting the spore cases.

Winter green

Rock Polypody, Polypodium virginianum

It’s getting harder to spot things in the woods to write about. From spring through fall life is so abundant and so vibrant that you could write five posts a day and still not run out of subject matter (true, four of those five would be about plants or invertebrates, but that’s beside the point). Come winter, though, things slow down. Animals migrate south or go into hibernation. Herpetiles bury themselves in the muck, fish swim down to the deeper parts of the lake. Insects die off, leaving just their eggs or cocoons to carry on the species come spring. Plants die back, trees and shrubs lose their leaves, and non-woody plants disappear altogether. What remains in January is just an empty shell of what was here in July.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there is nothing here. Although the winter complement is a far cry from the 100+ species recorded around here during the summer, our winter bird list will probably include some two dozen species. If we’re lucky, we may record half a dozen mammal species. Herpetiles and fish are in hiding, of course, but there is still evidence of insects if you know where to look. Woody plants – trees and shrubs – are easy to find, even if they have dropped their leaves. And, there are still some green plants around.

Rock Polypody, Polypodium virginianum

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, seeing perky green leaves surrounded by snow and leafless trees. It wouldn’t be too abnormal if this was an early snow in fall, when there were other plants that were still in the process of winterization. But the rest of the forest was barren and quiet, and the green leaves seemed somewhat out of place. These are evergreen ferns. Like in trees and some other types of plants, there is a subset of ferns that remain green year round. Here in the northeast there are three such species. The little ones in the above photos are Rock Polypody, Polypodium virginianum. It’s sometimes also called Common Polypody, but this is more often used for P. vulgare, a species of the Pacific northwest. The name Rock Polypody comes from the species’ habit of growing primarily on rock surfaces covered with a thin layer of soil. Indeed, virtually all of the plants I saw were on exposed rock surfaces or the sides of rock piles.

Marginal Shield Fern, Dryopteris marginalis, and Rock Polypody, Polypodium virginianum

The lower fern in this photo is Rock Polypody, but the upper one is Marginal Shield Fern, Dryopteris marginalis. Like fungi, ferns reproduce through spores rather than seeds, and the pores that release the spores are found either on specialized spikes that the plants put up, or on the underside of the plant’s leaves. The pattern of the pores is often helpful in identifying the species. In the case of the Marginal Shield Fern, the first part of its name comes from the arrangement of the pores along the margins of the fern’s subleaflets (the frilly edges on the sides of each of the fern frond’s “fingers”). In fact, at this time of year it’s difficult to confuse it with anything else. The only other commonly found evergreen fern to grow around here is Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, which resembles a Boston Fern in the long, narrow shape of the fronds.

Rock Polypody, Polypodium virginianum

Evergreen ferns have an interesting adaptation that allows them to remain green all winter without the leaves freezing and dying. While most plants will pull the sugars out of their leaves and into storage in their stems and roots, evergreen ferns do the opposite, instead packing the leaves with extra sugars, which act as a sort of anti-freeze, protecting the cells of the leaves from freezing and rupturing by ice crystals. A thick blanket of snow helps provide snug insulation against the dessicating effects of the cold, dry winter wind (although the species are also remarkably resilient to drying out, able to revive even after losing over half of their internal water content). By remaining green over the winter they extend the period that they’re able to photosynthesize, taking advantage of late fall sun before the snow falls, and getting a head start on other plants in the spring. Generally speaking, ferns aren’t a favourite foodstuff for many wild animals, but in the winter when food can be harder to find some animals, including deer, turkey and grouse, will nibble on evergreen fern fronds for nourishment.