Monday, March 30, 2015

A Foxy Spring?

“In like a lion and out like a lamb” is how March is described. This year was no exception; two weeks ago it was bottoming out at -35 F every morning, and now at the tail end of the month temperatures are in the low 50’s. That’s an 85° difference. Which is completely insane.

Here in Fairbanks the snow has been melting in record time. Local roads are turning muddy, while the main roads are as dry as the Indiana Speedway in July; snow is avalanching from roofs onto the ground and winter trails are deteriorating, making it hard to mush and snowmachine anymore. Most people have put away their skis for the year, and I have never seen so many folks running around in tee shirts this early.

Two years ago it snowed all through April, and break-up didn’t happen until the middle of May. Are we really done with the white season this year?

Well, today I heard a fly.

I sat in shirtsleeves on my nice sunny porch enjoying a cup of afternoon tea when I saw something moving low and slow among the trees. Too slow to be a squirrel or a chickadee, I realized it was a grouse, as big as a chicken and trying hard to be stealthy. That was almost impossible; not only was she very large, she was almost black. This surprised me, because just a month ago our sportsman neighbor showed us a photo of some grouse that were as white as the snow he lined their plump little dead bodies upon. A month later, it’s still pretty white around here, and that’s normal.  But I wondered: what causes birds like grouse to change color?

Most research suggests the hormonal changes causing the shift from white to black coats (and vice-versa) is driven by day length. Other studies have shown a strong air temperature cue that causes coat-color change in some animals. The first theory could be a problem if snowmelt happens before the birds darken: then you’d have white birds running around on black ground (pursued by slobbering foxes) waiting for the days to get longer. The second theory could cause the opposite problem: warm enough to change the birds but not melt the snow, which is what I saw today.  Either way, bad for the birds and great for my neighbor (and the foxes).

As for this particular grouse, not only did she stick out like a sore thumb, I saw her break through the fragile snow crust in a clearing and slip and fall right on her tailfeathers. My heart went out to her then: first she was this wild creature moving with the noiseless fluidity born of utter caution that tasty animals must have to survive, and now she was no different from a little kid on her first skis.  I hoped a safe shelter awaited her nearby from all the nosy dogs, foxes, and gun-toting sportsman that like to prowl the neighborhood.

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