BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7627-8755-5)
I’ll never forget the day the snow came alive beneath my feet.
It was a Sunday morning in February just after sunrise and I was heading up into the mountains for a day of cross-country skiing. The previous day’s blizzard had dumped more than a foot of snow on Colorado’s high country. But the morning air was surprisingly pleasant—almost balmy—considering it was midwinter and the nearby sign read: Guanella Pass Summit—Elevation 11,699 Feet.
I left the parking lot and started schussing toward a rock-lined ridge about a mile away. The blinding white glare made it difficult to look anywhere but straight down. The wind-whipped ripples of fresh snow squeaked cleanly as I poled along. A few hundred yards in, I paused to check my compass heading.
Suddenly there was a dance of movement all around my skis. Clumps of snow darted away from me in every direction. I knew it wasn’t an avalanche—the ground was barely sloping and, besides, these snow clumps all had orange eyelids, black beaks, and feathered feet.
Even in the harsh glare of the brilliant sun, the frenzy of white was no illusion. Within seconds, bright white, chicken-like birds were skittering everywhere across the snowfield in front of me. After I gathered my wits and realized that I was not about to fall into some deep crevasse or be eaten alive by prehistoric snow monsters, I understood that I had just invaded the snow-laden world of the white-tailed ptarmigan. It was difficult to say who was the more surprised, the birds or me.
Wild animals in Colorado have developed a variety of methods for coping with the rigors of a high-country winter. Many birds just avoid the cold altogether by migrating southward. But the white-tailed ptarmigan sticks around, surviving through some amazing adaptations. By the time the snow starts to pile up above timberline, the ptarmigan’s feathers have morphed from mottled brown to pure white, making these football-sized birds practically invisible to predators during the long Colorado winters. Feeding on twigs and buds of dwarf willows that poke above the wind-blown snowline, ptarmigan have fully feathered feet that keep them warm and allow them to walk on top of snowdrifts.
Ptarmigan also keep warm by digging deep into fresh snowdrifts until they are totally covered by the white powder. Which—as I experienced—makes it possible to be standing smack in the middle of a large flock without even knowing the birds are there. Strangely, these birds have a curious habit of belying their excellent natural camouflage when something stops moving. It’s as if they don’t believe their cryptic coloration actually works. So my compass-check was a lucky one, yielding the unforgettable experience of seeing the snow burst into life right before my eyes.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press). Photo credit: Copyright Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS.
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.