It's in the feet: how Canada geese stay warm during cold snaps

By Gurneet Samra - CHAT News
January 11, 2018 - 4:56pm

MEDICINE HAT -  With most of Southern Alberta under an extreme cold warning, residents will likely be flocking indoors to stay warm.

But a certain group of locals can survive outdoors, and even go for a swim, when the mercury plunges.

Canada geese can be spotted hanging around Medicine Hat and floating on the South Saskatchewan River on cold days.

That's because geese have certain biological features that keep them warm. Jo-Anne Reynolds, a biology and zoology instructor at Medicine Hat College, said their fluffy down feathers regulate their core temperature.

"Of course their feathers are very warm. They’re essentially wearing a down coat because they have so much down underneath their feathers, so that keeps their bodies warm," said Reynolds.

Another more subtle feature is the main reason that prevents their feet from sticking to the ice - a counter current blood circulation system. Reynolds explained this system works by exchanging cold and warm blood.

"Essentially what's happening is that warm blood gets cooled off as it comes down [to their feet], so it's cool by the time it reaches their feet. The cool blood will come up and share its heat again," said Reynolds, "so they can keep their feet just above freezing."

In many cases Canada geese can tuck their feet under their bodies, but Reynolds added that this special biological feature helps prevent the loss of body heat, and keeps their feet safe from frost bite.

Canada geese are equipped to survive cold snaps, but some populations do migrate. Reynolds said the decision to stay or leave is believed to depend heavily upon the food supply.

"If they go out to the fields to feed and the fields are covered with snow, that's an issue for them," said Reynolds.

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