I don’t know if it was cold enough to kill Christmas Eve morning, but it was definitely cold enough to get my attention. And that was all it took to convince me to pull the blankets back over my head and get a little extra sleep.
I had tentative plans for a holiday chukar excursion before joining the Elk Hunter to exchange gifts (I scored some excellent pasta attachments for my Kitchen Aid, by the way). The weather unfortunately had other ideas. After a relatively mild December, things went bad in the week before Christmas. There was snow, and even more concerning, sub-zero temperatures. After dreaming of dancing sugar plums all night, I woke, used my smart phone to check the weather, and decided to stay in.
How cold was it? The town nearest the chukar grounds registered -9. It was unclear if it would break zero for the day.
I’m sure my primary motivation was laziness, but in the moment my rationalization was that I was acting — or rather not acting in this case — in the best interests of my dog.
Still, in weather that cold you have to be prepared. The Elk Hunter and I recently watched the riveting crime drama “Wind River.” I’m not giving away too much to say that one character dies from pulmonary edema caused by her lungs freezing as she ran for her life in a frigid Wyoming winter night.
The dog probably would have been just fine running hard in temperatures hovering around zero, her lungs at least. We’ve hunted before in weather nearly as cold and the biggest problem is ice balls forming between her pads. When that happens she understandably focuses her attention on chewing the ice free from her foot hair rather than finding birds. Those ice balls must be like trying to jog with ball bearings in your sneakers.
Fortunately, I have dog boots to deal with that problem.
I suspect the lower end of my winter cold tolerance comes well before that of my dog. Icy feet aside, I don’t think she would have been in much danger running around on Christmas Eve. The respiratory tracts of most critters due a pretty good job of warming air as it passes through the body. One study suggests -40 degree air is warmed to body temperature by the time it reaches a dog’s lungs. How that was measured, however, I don’t have a clue.
The animal with possibly the best cold air warming system is the saiga antelope. These endangered antelope live on the frigid Eurasian steppe, and they have an air warming schnoz on them that makes the features of Watto — the large-nosed junk dealer on Tatooine who keeps Anakin Skywalker and his mother as slaves — seem delicate.
But extreme cold is tough on birds, especially if it’s long-lasting and comes with heavy snow cover that buries food. Of course the point of bird hunting is bird killing, but only birds you shoot, not the ones that scurry away unseen, while burning vital winter-surviving calories. When it gets cold and food gets scare or is buried in snow, game birds first burn through fat reserves, then muscle. Too much stress and they can’t survive to make baby game birds the following summer.
So chasing coveys in the extreme cold when your heart really isn’t in it only stresses birds at a time when they are most vulnerable to stress. The chukar season in Wyoming runs through the end of January, so if we get a little irregularity before then, maybe I’ll squeeze in another day or two of hunting.