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Pam Otto: Dressed for success, nature-style

A male northern cardinal (left) and a male dark-eyed junco walk in the snow. Both birds are well adapted to surviving the extreme conditions a northern Illinois winter can bring.
A male northern cardinal (left) and a male dark-eyed junco walk in the snow. Both birds are well adapted to surviving the extreme conditions a northern Illinois winter can bring.

Where were you when winter arrived?

No, I’m not talking about the Winter Solstice, that astronomical event that occurred at 5:11 a.m. Friday and marked the beginning of our coldest season.

I’m referring to that blast of Arctic air that blew into town late Thursday afternoon, bringing with it reminders of winter storms past. Even though the snowfall didn’t amount to much and the temperatures around here have certainly been lower in years past, it was the coldest and windiest weather we’d seen in a long time.

I’d contemplated leaving work a little bit early that day, but opted instead to buckle down and get caught up on a few bits of correspondence and paperwork.

And so it was that I found myself heading out the door around 6 p.m., just as, I swear, the winds began to blow 10 mph higher and the temperature dipped 10 degrees lower. As I locked the doors and felt the chill in the air, I realized how woefully unprepared I was for this first taste of winter.

Sure I had on my longjohns, a wardrobe staple from November through March, underneath my work clothes. And I’d remembered to grab my raincoat and a pair of gloves before I left that house that morning. But with no hat, no scarf and really no insulation save my, ahem, bowlful of jelly, I was facing a long, cold walk out to the far lot where I’d parked my car.

Luckily, I remembered the pair of quilt-lined coveralls I keep stored in a locker. I pulled them on, zipped them up, tugged my raincoat on over them and headed out the door.

Sure, it was a little early for insulated coveralls (they’re really designed for bitter cold) but did I care? Not one bit.

Because as I waddled along in my warm but somewhat saggy attire (they’re also designed for someone an inch or two taller), I was undeniably protected from the elements. The biting wind couldn’t penetrate the layers of fiber fill, and the sleety snow bounced right off the tough, treated canvas.

I had dressed for success, nature-style.

Toddling along, I couldn’t help but wonder if my ill-fitting but functional outerwear approximated, in any way, the sorts of protective adaptations our local wildlife sport this time of year. Did my polyester insulation function as well, or perhaps better than, the down that protects our local birds? How did it measure up to the thick undercoats of our local mammals?

One thing was sure. I was the only critter, mammal, bird or otherwise that lacked the good sense to stay out of the weather. As I shuffled toward the dark, distant lump that was my car, no birds fluttered overhead; no mammals scampered across the frosted ground.

I could only imagine the variety of shelters to which these creatures had retreated. Tree cavities no doubt were popular; ditto for brush piles, burrows, fallen logs (and their modern-day counterparts, culverts), dense shrubbery and evergreens – anything that would block the relentless blowing wind and its accompanying chill. Shielded from the elements, the animals could then use tried-and-true tricks such as shivering and shared body heat to keep from freezing. I think.

If you, like me, spend inordinate amounts of time contemplating things like winter wildlife survival strategies – or even if you only ponder them occasionally – take heart in knowing you’re not alone. And be sure and mark your calendars.

Dressed for Success, a look at how animals’ adaptations help them survive temperature extremes, is the theme of this year’s Discovery Days, the signature winter event we host annually at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center.

This year’s Discovery Days will be from noon to 4 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 10. The January date will feature the return of our star performers from last year, Free Spirit Huskies, along with a range of winter-themed activities: Blubber Glove; Cool-As-A-Cucumber; the Dressed for Success Relay; and other cold weather-themed games and arts and crafts.

The February event’s headliners will be the folks from Northern Illinois Raptors and their elite squad of live birds of prey. Presentations on these birds and their amazing adaptations will be at 1 and 3 p.m. Ongoing activities that day will include the Penguin Shuffle; Frosty Bubbles; Dew Tell; Bird Beak Bonanza; and craft opportunities such as making pinecone birdfeeders.

Questions? Just give a call or email. Also ... I know this probably goes without saying but, because we will have stations set up inside and out, if you’re planning on coming ... be sure to dress for the weather!

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or

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