Archives > September 2017

Winter Adaptations

As you may have already noticed, the fall migration is well under way. Many species make their way south for the winter but many stick around in Canada throughout the year. What is the reason for this? Why do some species leave, while others seem to be able to withstand our harsh Canadian winters?

Thanks to the process of evolution, many species have adapted to be able to physically withstand our colder weather, while others have adapted to fly south.

The Canada goose is a good example. But why do you see them in V-formations heading south? The habitat range of the Canada goose is quite broad, and extends to the northernmost tips of Canada, all the way down to the southern United States and Central America (Cornell University 2017). Geese who spend their summers in the northern parts of Canada will fly south to spend their winters in areas that aren’t as cold. Calgary and Southern Alberta have relatively mild winters compared to the vast majority of the rest of Canada (with the exception of the Pacific coast), and we can see some Canada geese year round here. There are also several species of ducks that choose the Calgary area as their home year-round.

But how do their feet not freeze? Unlike the snowy owl, rough-legged hawk, Ferruginous hawk and Golden Eagle (just a few examples), geese and ducks do not have a warm layer of feathers protecting their legs in the colder weather. Instead, they have a “counter-current heat exchange system”.

Well, that sounds awfully scienc-y (I am sure you are saying to yourself right now). But it’s actually a pretty amazing and straight-forward system. Basically, arteries and veins in the legs and feet of ducks and geese are extremely close to each other. This enables the warm blood from the heart (in the arteries) to pass in close enough proximity to the cold blood from the feet flowing back to the heart (in the veins) (Ask a Naturalist 2010). Therefore, the blood in the arteries warms up the blood in the veins and the legs of ducks and geese don’t completely freeze.

There are several other ways that animals have adapted to winter, and this applies to non-bird animals as well.

Polar bears have a thick layer of fat (blubber) that can sometimes be up to 11 cm thick, and are covered in an extremely thick layer of fur. In fact, polar bears are so well insulated that they can overheat (Seaworld 2017)! Other Canadian bears, the black bear and the grizzly bear, go into a stage of dormancy, more commonly referred to as hibernation. Hibernation is essentially the slowing down of metabolism to reduce the energy requirements for the body. Black bears and grizzly bears will hunker down in a den for the cold months, and can hibernate without eating, drinking, urinating or defecating for up to 7.5 months (North American Bear Centre 2017). By going into hibernation, black bears and grizzly bears are able to live throughout the winter when their food sources are scarce, and the weather is too cold for them.

But what about fish, frogs and snakes? What do they do in the colder months?

Well, dormancy is common in cold-blooded animals and it allows for reduced metabolic activity. Cold-blooded animals lack control of their internal metabolism, therefore, they cannot regulate their own temperature very well (if at all).

Some fish are able to create chemicals within their bodies that can lower their freezing temperature, thereby allowing them to still function in temperatures that they would otherwise freeze in (Michigan State University Extension 2017). Some species of snakes, such as the garter snake, will occupy a collective den with sometimes up to thousands of other snakes. The Narcisse snake pits in Manitoba for an extreme example of a snake den (Manitoba, 2017). Large groups that gather in this manner are more easily able to conserve their collective body heat than if they were to spend winter alone in a den (Michigan State University Extension 2017).

Some frogs can stay alive in a frozen state; they will seek shelter in leaves and debris, and their bodies produce proteins that freeze the water in their blood (National Geographic 2007; Michigan State University Extension 2017). The ice in the blood will draw out the water from the frog’s cells and at the same time, the frog’s liver will produce glucose which will fill the cells and allow them to keep their shapes without collapsing, which is what would happen if the water remained in the cells and did freeze. When spring comes along, water returns to the cells and replaces the glucose, and the frogs can function like normal again.

These are just a few of the many examples of how species are able to survive and withstand our Canadian winters. Because we do have several species that live in Alberta year round, we receive animals at our centre year-round as well. We are always grateful for support that comes our way. Please consider making a donation if you are able to, or sharing this post to spread the information you learned about today…we couldn’t do it without you! Be sure to leave a comment below for any other winter adaptations that you find fascinating that weren’t mentioned here.

By Tayler Hamilton, AIWC Volunteer


Ask a Naturalist ( 2017. Why Don’t Duck’s Feet Freeze? Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Cornell University. 2017. Canada Goose. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Manitoba. 2017. Snakes of Narcisse. Available at: Accessed September 19, 2017.

Michigan State University Extension. 2017. Winter Adaptations of Animals. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

National Geographic. 2007. Antifreeze-Like Blood Lets Frogs Freeze and Thaw with Winter’s Whims. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

North American Bear Centre. 2017. Bear Facts: Black Bear – Hibernation. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Seaworld (Seaworld Parks & Entertainment). 2017. Polar Bears: Adaptations for an Aquatic Environment. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2017.

Making the Most of Fall Nature Walks

From the cool, crisp air to the jewel-toned leaves, fall is definitely a season that inspires people to get out and experience nature. And with critters hurriedly scurrying about making their winter preparations, fall is certainly one of the best seasons for observing wildlife. Whether you spot a squirrel crossing your path on an evening stroll, or you spy a family of bears while out on an autumn hike, here are a few pointers on how to make the most of your nature walks this season:

  1. Dress appropriately With temperatures dropping (and, let’s face it, unexpectedly rising again, since we’re talking about Alberta), it’s important to dress in layers so you’re prepared for changing temperatures. Carrying lightweight gloves or mittens just in case is always a good idea when embarking on fall adventures, and an emergency toque won’t hurt, either. And if you know you’re going to be exerting yourself, make sure to don your best and most appropriate pair of shoes. Leave the flip flops behind and dig out your sneakers or hiking boots, depending on your selected trail.
  2. Unplug When you’re in the great outdoors, it’s tempting to document all the sights and sounds you encounter to share with your family and friends (and your Twitter followers). But in order to get the full effect of such natural beauty, I strongly urge you to put the phone away and enjoy everything that you see and hear in real time. Trust me, Facebook will be there and waiting for you when you get back to the real world. (And if you have to document the beauty around you, be sure to limit your screen time to only snapping pictures.)
  3. Pay attention The wilderness can be a serene oasis, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t risks involved. Being around wildlife means discovering their wild animal behaviours, and you may at one point encounter an aggressive or hungry animal. Pay attention to the sights and sounds around you, and keep an alert eye out for animal tracks and droppings. Not only will this save your footwear from stepping in something unsavoury, it’ll help keep you on your toes if you happen to come across an animal that’s not too pleased to see you. Use these tips to prepare yourself for the off chance of encountering an aggressive animal, and contact AIWC if you encounter an injured animal or if you have any questions about respecting animals’ boundaries during their winter preparations.
  4. Savour the moment While taking a vigorous nature walk is great for the body, some could argue that the visual aspect of such a jaunt is good for the soul. We’re lucky to be surrounded by such natural beauty in Alberta, and as important as it is to heed to wild animals and respect their environment, it’s just as important to relish what you see. Fall and all of its seasonal beauty is fleeting, and winter is, inevitably, coming. Make the most of these days and savour them with as many nature walks as possible.


By Giselle Wedemire, AIWC Volunteer

Back to School

Heading back to school can be tough for kids, parents, and teachers as everyone adjusts their routines. It can also mean kids spend even more time indoors, but keeping children interested wildlife can encourage them to explore and head outside. Check out some of these activities to keep kids engaged with nature until next summer!

  1. Take a Hike! There are still a few weeks left of summer to enjoy a visit to one of Alberta’s many municipal, provincial, or national parks to see wildlife before hibernation and birds before migration.
  2. Create! Help the kids in your life start a photo blog, write a story, paint a picture, or sculpt an animal. The information you’ll learn together by examining wildlife through different mediums will be surprising!
  3. Be a Detective! Once the snow falls, follow the tracks and see if you can figure out what wildlife has travelled through the area.
  4. Volunteer! Participate in a community cleanup to prevent animals from eating something they shouldn’t or becoming trapped or tangled in improperly discarded items.
  5. Adopt an Animal! Teach budgeting by encouraging children to save their allowance to adopt an animal from AIWC or sponsor a patient.
  6. Prepare! Start planning for next summer by mapping out a pollinator garden and researching the best plants to support bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds and others throughout the spring and summer.
  7. Write a Letter! Help kids write a letter to engage a local, national, or international organization to ask for more information about their wildlife programs and things that they can do to help protect wildlife and their habitats.
  8. Book an Educator! Book a wildlife educator to visit your classroom to learn more about Alberta’s animals.
  9. Fundraise! Get kids to collaborate with friends and classmates to fundraise for local organizations or gather in kind donations for AIWC’s wish list
  10. Build! Help give wildlife a safe space to live next summer by building nest boxes with children over the coming months. Bumblebees, bats, and birds all have unique housing needs, so do some research online to find out more about the best sizes and shapes for different species.

By Stephanie Ruddock, AIWC Volunteer

Alberta Wildlife Recoveries: Ferruginous Hawk

What are ferruginous hawks?

The largest of the North American hawks, ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) are named specifically for their rust-coloured plumage on their backs and heads. Due to their size and behaviour, they may often be mistaken for eagles. Ferruginous hawks feed primarily on medium-size mammals such as rabbits and squirrels, but they will also feed on smaller birds and reptiles. These hawks are endemic to North America, and they are usually only active in the summer months, during which they nest and raise the young, and then begin to migrate south towards the end of the season (AEP Profile)

Where are ferruginous hawks found?

The ferruginous hawk is found only in the Great Plains of North America, and the grasslands of southern Alberta, where they arrive during late March to early April and begin their southerly migration to Mexico in mid-October (Bechard & Schmutz 1995). The hawk-preferred habitats are uncultivated grassland and prairie, where they can utilise thermal updrafts, and quickly chase prey with no cover. Specifically, in Alberta their historic density and breeding success is linked with the distribution of Richardson’s ground squirrel, which is their main prey (Downey et al 2005).

What is being done to protect the ferruginous hawk?

The ferruginous hawk is currently classified “at-risk” by the General Status of Alberta Wild Species Report, and “endangered” under the Wildlife Act (AEP profile). It is estimated that fewer than 700 pairs remain in the province, as their numbers are declining because of loss of nesting habitat. As a threatened species, they are protected under the provincial wildlife act, and it is illegal to kill or harass individuals or disturb their nests (AEP profile).

The Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan (2009-2014) was established with the goal of achieving a viable, self-sustaining population across the Alberta grassland habitat, and for this population to be a continuous one that ranges across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana.

Because of the increase in industrial and agrarian development in Alberta, the recovery plan states that the present reduced range is unlikely to be increased, and so efforts are best spent on maintaining current populations and recovery, while looking for opportunities to establish grassland restoration when possible.

What more needs to be done, and how can we help?

One of the biggest factors in the reduced population size of the ferruginous hawk is a lack of nesting sites. The Provincial Ferruginous Hawk Lead has released education material for landowners who wish to contribute to the recovery of the hawks, and suggests the creation of artificial nesting posts that can be used to supplement existing recovery efforts (Nature Canada, Downey et al 2006).

As always, increasing knowledge and education of Alberta’s animal species is also one the biggest ways we can help. Public outreach and education programs have shown that people care deeply about protecting everything that makes Alberta special, so let’s do everything we can to spread the word and help recovery efforts.

By Jonathan Poll, AIWC volunteer


Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Team. 2009.  Alberta Ferruginous Hawk Recovery Plan 2009-2014. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Alberta Recovery Plan, No.17, Edmonton, AB. 44pp.

Bechard, M.J., and Schmutz, J.K. 1995. Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis). In Poole, A., and Gill, F. (eds). The Birds of North America, No 172. Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA. 20pp.

Downey, B.A., et al. 2006. Use of playback alarm calls to detect and quantify habitat use by Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. Wildlife Society Bulletin 34 (2): 480-483 /

Photo Credit: Alberta Environment and Parks