Thursday, November 26, 2020

Nature’s Guide to Getting Outside in Winter

Steely cold seeped through my gloved fingers as they gripped the lock on my front door. The chill of winter had found an easy path through this dense metal, and gave me a frosty preview of what waited outside. Pulling my hand back, I zipped my jacket higher, pulled my hat lower, and looked at the thermometer: 14 degrees. With a burst of resolve, I flipped the lock and braced for impact.

The frosty air I had so dreaded was bracing and fresh on my face, and pale, rising sunshine painted an ever-changing water color behind the lace of trees. With a deep breath, I relaxed, and had myself a very enjoyable hike. I love winter, but it still takes some willpower to leave the warm cocoon of my house. 

Animals, including humans, have three basic options for dealing with winter: migrate, hibernate, or stay active. That third one can feel daunting, but getting outside and getting your heart rate up is also incredibly valuable for our mental and physical health. Maybe we can gain some inspiration with a little help from our wild friends. What do they have to teach us about staying active in winter?

The key to my winter happiness—whether indoors or out—is having warm feet. I achieve this through wool-blend socks and insulated boots; but rough-legged hawks, who breed in the Arctic and who fly “south” to Wisconsin for the winter, simply grow feathers all the way down their legs and along their toes. In comparison to the bare, scaly talons of other hawks, their legs look “rough.” Golden eagles share this adaptation, as do snowy owls, great gray owls, and northern hawk owls. I’d be jealous, but then I also have down booties keeping my tootsies warm right now. 

Birds don’t have a monopoly on warm feet. Thick fur covers the foot pads of red foxes. This makes their tracks look fuzzy. Coyotes have less foot-hair, and so the tracks they make are more precise. That’s one characteristic I use to try to figure out who’s been walking up and down my driveway at night. 

Of course, just having warm feet isn’t enough when the sidewalks and trails are covered in a perilous patina. Then we need traction, too. Earlier this fall, I watched a forlorn duck traversing thin ice in order to reach open water. Each foot slid as it landed on the water-glazed surface, and slipped again as it tried to push off. This continued until the ice broke and the duck plopped into a belly-sized hole. Webbed feet have their advantages, and disadvantages, too. Luckily, most ducks migrate to regions where the water stays in liquid form. 

On the other hand, ruffed grouse thrive in the land of ice and snow. The secret? They produce their own combo of snowshoes and Yaktrax traction cleats. Every fall, the scales on a grouse’s feet expand out to the sides, until they have a comb-like fringe decorating all their toes. These pectinations—from the Latin word for comb—distribute the grouse’s weight onto a bigger surface area to help them walk on top of the snow. The projections also help grouse get a good grip on the ice-encased twigs of aspen trees while they nibble on the tender flower buds—their most important winter food.

Ruffed grouse grow their own combination snowshoes and grippers each winter (left), in the form of a comb-like fringe along the sides of their toes. Photo by Emily Stone. 

As long as my feet are warm and I’m not falling over, my next goal in winter is to make sure that I don’t get too hot. Yep, you read that right. I find it pretty easy to stay warm in the winter—just layer up with all of those cozy, puffy layers, and get moving. But as soon as I’m moving, my metabolism kicks up and I become a furnace. If I’m not careful, my base layers become damp with sweat. The liquid interferes with the insulating properties of fabric, and also initiates evaporative cooling. This is an unfortunate part of being human. Hardly any other animals sweat. The purpose of sweat is to cool us down, and it works…sometimes too well. So, I’ve learned to dress lightly, and in layers that I can take off to prevent overheating. 

Moose have a more troubling problem. Hollow, insulating hair in their winter coat and a huge body mass make sub-zero temperatures a non-issue. But moose can’t take off a layer like I can, and they also can’t sweat, so when the mercury rises to 23 degrees Fahrenheit, they start exhibiting heat stress. Their behavior mimics ours in the dog-days of summer: seek shade, find a cooling breeze, lie down, and eat less. 

That last item is a problem because, for Northwoods winter residents, the most important factor in staying warm is eating enough food. (Remember that on Thanksgiving Day!) Animals who can’t find food migrate or hibernate. Up north, chickadees gorge on fatty seeds; golden-crowned kinglets spend every second of daylight searching for juicy caterpillars frozen to twigs; wolves stuff up to 20 pounds of venison into their bellies at a single meal; snowshoe hares nibble constantly on twigs and consume their food twice to extract all of the calories. 

Black-Capped Chickadees stay warm and active in the winter through a combination of warm down ad eating calorie-dense foods. Photo by Emily Stone. 

For Northwoods humans, it’s a great idea to keep a candy bar in your jacket pocket and a thermos of hot chocolate in your backpack. What a treat! With those calories to ward off the cold, plus proper footwear to keep you upright, I think nature is telling us that it’s time to get outside!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Watch for Deer!

Deer move in ways we can’t. Notice how the deer’s back legs seem to bend backwards, her hoof is curled up while not on the ground, and her ears are cocked to listen for danger in multiple places. All of these area adaptations to help her survive! Photo by Emily Stone, taken in Acadia National Park, Maine. 

With blue sky above and a skim of fresh snow clinging to every twig and blanketing the ground, I hummed along happily on the two-lane highway. When a doe leaped across the road in front of me, I pumped the brakes, and my dad’s voice echoed in my head, “Where there’s one there are more.” Sure enough, a thick-necked buck followed close behind, his antlers pointing intently at his quarry.

With hunting seasons and the rut (mating season) in full swing, October and November are the top months for deer-vehicle collisions in Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin DOT, “Last year in Wisconsin, there were 18,414 reported deer/vehicle crashes that resulted in injuries to 556 motorists and nine fatalities (six were motorcyclists).” It’s no wonder that the Midwestern way to say “I Love You” is “watch for deer.”

Watch for deer, and you might just notice some of their amazing adaptations, too. 

That deer run fast is both a blessing and a curse. They can flash into your headlights so quickly that you don’t have time to react, but ideally they also exit the roadway with expedience, too. Deer anatomy drives their speed. 

Deer hooves correspond to our fingers or toes, and you could argue that this is where their speed begins. Those small, hard points have a relatively small surface area, which reduces friction in contact with the ground. Besides increasing speed, this also decreases noise when they’re walking through crunchy leaves. For added traction, deer have two vestigial toes, called “dew claws” that occur farther up their leg. These correspond to our pointer and pinkie fingers, and usually contact the ground only in snow or mud. 

A deer’s hooves attach to their lower legs with a special ligament. As they plant a hoof on the ground, the ligament stretches out, with the deer’s own weight supplying the force. This stores energy like a stretched rubber band. When something startles the deer into a leap, that ligament snaps back. The stored energy adds power to their jump—which can clear an 8-foot fence. In a photo captured mid-leap, you can see that the hooves are curled back due to the contraction of that ligament. 

That’s just one example of deer hinging in ways we don’t. Have you ever noticed that a deer’s rear “knees” bend backwards? Their lower leg bones correspond to the bones of our human foot, and the joint that is at “knee height” corresponds to our ankle. Although a deer’s front “knee” corresponds to our wrist, it looks more normal to us, because it bends in the same direction as our knees. 
This diagram of a horse vs a human can help you imagine how a deer's skeleton compares to ours, too. Source.

As we travel up their legs, the adaptations continue. Deer lack a collarbone at the top of their front legs. This means that their left and right shoulders can pivot independently. With rear legs providing thrust and front legs steering, deer hit speeds of up to 36 miles per hour and turn on a dime. 

To my consternation, deer don’t always use their speed, though. Sometimes they just stand in the middle of the road, looking confused. If your headlights are on, their eyes will shine. That’s the tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer in the back of their eyes that improves night vision. 

Despite this layer, eyesight is not a deer’s most important sense. Deer ears are incredibly powerful, and like their front legs, can move independently of each other. By turning their ears this way and that, deer can hear sounds from behind them, and also pinpoint where sounds are coming from. 

I love sharing this adaptation with kids. We all put on our “deer ears” by cupping our hands behind our ears. Their eyes widen in amazement as the sound of my voice is amplified. Then we start changing the way our cupped hands face, and noises from the back or the side suddenly come into focus. 

Look at those directional ears!

But hearing alone is often not enough for deer to identify danger. That’s where smell comes in. Once they catch a whiff of a human or a wolf on the breeze, those ligaments start springing. 

Of course, deer didn’t develop these amazing adaptations to avoid getting hit by cars. It is their role as a prey animal that honed their skills. It might surprise you to learn that vehicles and wolves kill roughly the same number of deer in Wisconsin each year. Hunters, on the other hand, kill almost ten times as many deer as wolves do. Hunting is an important population management tool that can reduce deer/vehicle collisions and put free-range meat on our tables. 

So, with the Wisconsin gun deer season opening on November 21, I’d like to wish success to all of the hunters, and to the rest of us, watch for deer!

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Finding Something to Like About Squirrels

Election season can be tough on friendships, neighbors, and our mental health. To distract myself, I rearranged my bird feeders for prime visibility from my home office. Chickadees immediately swooped in, while nuthatches puttered around, squeaking. They are both picky eaters, and tend to weigh each seed in their beaks before tossing it curtly to the side, or flying off to peck at it from a perch. Fat gray squirrels snuffled around under the feeder picking up the leavings. 

Then, while deep in an email, a knock on the window jerked my attention up. One of those dastardly gray squirrels had made an impressive vertical leap and was hanging from a wildly swinging feeder. I felt my blood pressure rise. 

To calm down, I went back to doom scrolling through the news. Among the vitriol and uncertainty, a meme popped up about understanding and empathy for our neighbors who didn’t vote with us. As I stared off into the distance contemplating this, an adorable gray nose poked up above the bottom of the window. “Damn squirrels,” I thought. And then realized, maybe they are the neighbor I should start with. 

A dastardly gray squirrel eats all the bird seed from the author’s feeder. Photo by Emily Stone

If you’re one who already admires squirrels, then you might wonder what I have against them. Well, there are objective reasons, like the fact that they chew destructively on doorframes and deck railings. They’re also causing the demise of native squirrels in several European countries where they’ve been introduced, but let’s not borrow trouble. 

Then there are the subjective reasons I grumble at squirrels. My family has always enjoyed feeding and watching birds. Squirrels dominate a feeder, eat an expensive amount of seeds that we purchased for the birds, and keep the birds away. To add injury to insult, squirrels are nest predators, and eat baby birds. I can usually be philosophical about how the food chain plays out in nature, but this one rubs me the wrong way. 

What is there to like about squirrels? Well, I admit that they can be cute. Their antics are entertaining. And like all living things, they are an important part of their ecosystem. My favorite role for squirrels, of course, is that they are food for minks, foxes, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, lynx, fishers, and red-tailed hawks—all animals I like more. But perhaps this isn’t a productive line of thinking. 

Before they become someone’s lunch, squirrels have positive impacts on another favorite of mine: oak trees. That squirrels eat acorns is cliché, but HOW they eat them is more nuanced. For example, squirrels treat the acorns of white oaks and red oaks differently. Squirrels eat white oak acorns on the spot. Pick up a red oak acorn, and the squirrel will hide it away for later. These habits are a result of two big differences between the oaks. 

First, white oak acorns contain fewer tannins, which are acids that interfere with the digestion of proteins. That makes the acorns more nutritious for a squirrel. Second, white oak acorns are programmed to germinate in the fall. If a squirrel were to cache it in a hole somewhere, the acorn would sprout, and the baby tree would use up the energy stored within. The highly acidic acorns of red oaks, on the other hand, need at least 4-8 weeks of cold stratification before they will germinate. In the wild, that means they wait until spring. A squirrel has the entire winter to get around to eating them. 

Now, it’s a common story that new oak trees grow from acorns that squirrels hid and forgot about, or died before they could retrieve. Sometimes, though, a squirrel will actually nip out the embryo of an acorn before they cache it, which prevents it from ever germinating. In contrast, sometimes a squirrel will eat more than half of an acorn—starting from the end with the cap where there are fewer tannins—and the seed will still be able to grow. One study actually found that partially eaten acorns had a better germination rate than intact acorns. Plus, squirrels can identify which acorns are infested with weevil larvae. Those are eaten, and the viable, uninfested acorns are cached. Squirrels can plant their trees and eat them too. 

And finally, one of the most fascinating things about squirrels’ relationship with acorns is how it impacts their interactions with other squirrels. Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders, which means that they hide food all over the place, in up to several thousand locations each season. Experiments suggest that they retrieve their own caches using a phenomenal spatial memory, and not their sense of smell. Smell is helpful for finding and eating someone else’s cache, though. 

Stealing food is common among squirrels, which is why they are extremely sneaky while making caches. If prying eyes are nearby, the squirrel will pretend to dig a hole, put in the acorn, and cover it up, all while hiding the food in their mouth. Then they’ll scurry to a new location—out of view of their rival—and actually cache the nut there. This may seem like an obvious trick to us, but it points to a type of intelligence that we don’t often afford to non-human mammals. It’s called: Theory of Mind. 

According to Wikipedia, “Theory of Mind is the understanding that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own. Possessing a functional theory of mind is considered crucial for success in everyday human social interactions…”

Wow. My little experiment in empathy worked. I suddenly have a lot more respect for the dastardly gray squirrel currently hanging acrobatically from my feeder and gobbling up all of the seeds. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is closed, but our Mysteries of the Night exhibit is available online. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Awe Walks

Frost came first to the nasturtium leaves in my garden. When I stepped outside at dawn, the radiating arms and web-like patterns of their leaf veins were all highlighted by a dusting of diamonds. I grabbed my camera, and tried to capture the beauty before my fingers went numb. When I finally ducked back inside the warm house for coffee, I felt like my chest had expanded. 

Frost radiates out along the veins of a nasturtium leaf. Photo by Emily Stone.

That night, I took my camera and my UV flashlight out for a walk. A dying iris leaf on the lakeshore shone with the yellow of a fresh Number 2 pencil, and melted frost sparkled like fairy dust. One spike of moss glowed with a vibrant red, while another’s leaves were curly and green. Among the soft throngs of mosses, my beam of light caught the white body of a tiny larva, and it glowed eerily. 

Who knew that iris leaves fluoresce in the color of a brand-new pencil? Photo by Emily Stone.

The closer I looked at the mossy bank of my driveway, the more I saw. And the effect seemed infinite. Using the UV flashlight revealed one new way of seeing; and zooming in with the super-macro setting of my camera opened up a new world, too. There was more to see here than I could possibly know. All I would have to do to explore is keep looking in new ways. I felt like I’d discovered a whole new ecosystem—a whole new universe—in an area the size of my own shadow. I don’t even know how long I was out there. My fingers and toes got cold, and the flashlight battery grew weak. 

Something as simple and common as moss can elicit feelings of awe, especially when we look closer, or in a new light. Photo taken with UV light by Emily Stone. 

When scientists look closely at things in a new light, they make even more amazing observations. A team of professors and students at Northland College, led by Dr. Paula Anich, recently revealed that platypuses fluoresce brilliantly in shades of green and blue. Their paper was published in the journal Mammalia. Paula said, “For me, this reinforces how much is yet to be discovered, and it reinforces how little humans know about certain times of day, and the ways that animals perceive things. It makes me think that we are standing on the edge of big new leaps into how animals perceive things, especially at night.” Wow.

What Paula and her students probably experienced while looking at platypuses in the basement of the Field Museum, and what I experienced out there—in my own yard—was awe. 

People also do research about awe. Did you know that? I didn’t, until recently. According to the science, there are two components of an “awe experience.” First, you need to perceive that you’ve encountered something vast. That vastness could be represented by something’s number, size, scope, or complexity. Second, you need to feel like your brain must expand in order to understand that vastness. For many people, art and music trigger these feelings. For me, it’s moss, or frost on leaf veins, or a fluorescing platypus, or a thousand other aspects of nature. 

I feel pretty fortunate that I’m able to experience awe so easily and so frequently, because feeling awe makes us feel better. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve started a hike feeling gloomy, stressed out, stiff, and disenchanted with the world, and have come home with a new sense of purpose and well-being after having experienced awe. 

This, too, is described in the research. Experiencing awe brings us into the present moment, which changes our perception of time: it slows down. We feel like we have more time. And isn’t that what many of us want most? That perception of extra time has been shown to make people more patient and more willing to help others. There are other positive outcomes, too. Feeling awe increases life satisfaction, generosity and humility; decreases aggression; and improves the way we perceive our bodies—and our fellow humans. 

Researchers at the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center wanted to find out if feeling awe could improve brain health in older adults, so they designed a simple study. The participants were asked to go on a 15 minute walk at least once a week. Half of the group was given a little lecture about the nature of awe, and were encouraged to try and experience it during their walks. The control group just walked. They all took selfies during each outing. 

Over the course of the study, the control group actually took more walks (possibly because they thought the study was about exercise) but experienced none of the positive outcomes of the awe group. They mostly reported focusing inward, on things like their to-do lists. Those who were told to focus on awe reported that they felt more positive emotions like compassion and gratitude in their daily lives, and less stress. Their attention shifted outward. In parallel, their faces took up less of each photo, with the landscape around them becoming more prominent, and their smiles took up more of their faces, too. These effects grew stronger the longer they practiced experiencing awe. 

So, you’ve just been given your little lecture about the nature of awe. Now, I think it’s time to head outside, don’t you? And if you happen to take a selfie, or just a pretty photo, while you’re out there, feel free to share it with me through email, or the Cable Natural History Museum’s social media accounts, or #awewalk             Facebook             Instagram

That's me, taking an #awewalk at St. Peter's Dome. 

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is now available to purchase at Or order it from our friends at to receive free shipping!

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our Mysteries of the Night exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and to keep track of our latest adventures in learning.