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Chickadees on a Cold Night - Interview with Susan Sharbaugh

How do these tiny birds survive when it's so cold?

The Black-capped Chickadees of Fairbanks, Alaska, endure nights as cold as 40 degrees below zero. Dr. Susan Sharbaugh, a scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has studied them. She says that each chickadee wedges itself into a tiny cavity. Then the birds drop their body temperature 18 degrees and shiver all night to generate heat. 

Full Transcript

Transcript: 

BirdNote®

Chickadees on a Cold Night -- Interview with Susan Sharbaugh

Written by Chris Peterson

This is BirdNote!

[Calls and chatter of Black-capped Chickadees]

Every adult chickadee you see this spring survived the winter. Some, like the Black-capped Chickadees of Fairbanks, Alaska, endured nights as cold as 40 degrees below zero. [Cold winter wind] How do they do that?

We called Dr. Susan Sharbaugh, [Shar-baugh] a scientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks: 

“Well I’ve been studying chickadees and watching their behaviors thinking about their physiology for about twenty years now. And one of the things that really intrigued me was where they spend the night. And I haven’t been able to find that until recently …when I was able to put radio transmitters on some birds and follow them where they roost at night. :55 And what I found was that these birds, just as it’s getting dark, wedge themselves into little tiny cavities in birch trees, and these cavities have an opening about the size of a quarter…. And after they get in there what we think happens is that they puff up their feathers to increase their insulation and then drop their body temperature 18 degrees and then shiver all night to generate heat.

[And how …they fuel that shivering all night, is that during the day – and in Alaska, in the winter time, it’s a six hour day and an eighteen hour night – so in those six hours they need to find enough energy to sustain themselves during that day and for a fast of 18 hours… and they do this by putting on ten percent of their body mass and fat each day and they] … and how they do that is that during the day, they forage around on the trees, looking underneath bark for overwintering insects and they also cache in the fall, so they have a known source of seeds and insects that they’ve put away in the fall, so that’s what they burn overnight.”

[Susan knows their cavities are tight, because she’s seen some at her feeder in the morning with bent tails.]

 Imagine enduring such cold. No wonder they’re singing in spring!

 [Song of Black-capped Chickadee]

Learn more about Susan’s work on chickadee physiology when you begin at our website, birdnote.org.

###

Sounds of the Black-capped Chickadee provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Call of single recorded by R.S. Little, chatter of several by S.R. Pantle; song recorded by G.A. Keller.

BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org    April 2014  Narrator: Mary McCann

ID# chickadee-02-2011-04-08 chickadee-02b

Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (www.iab.uaf.edu).

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