Earlier this week, when the polar vortex’s cold eye was taking a deep look south, I wondered how the city-dwelling animals are holding up. Where are those gray squirrels we see shaking Central Park’s trees on warmer days? Do pigeons have Snuggies? And what about my ants? How can something so tiny survive in weather that will freeze a drop of water five times its size in less than five seconds?
When I asked my New York City friends to tell me the top five animals that come to mind when they think of who shares the city with them, their answers were all pretty much the same: pigeons, rats, ants, squirrels, and roaches. So I took to the books, I asked experts, I poked and prodded into the private lives of things that scurry, and I found out how they beat the chill.
To be honest, a lot of animals don’t make it through the cold. But those who do have some pretty cool strategies for staying warm.
1. Pigeons. When the mercury drops, pigeons actually do have Snuggies, of sorts. Except they didn’t need to ring up QVC to get them. To keep warm, they fluff up their feathers, making an insulating air pocket that surrounds their bodies. Then they tuck their bills into their backs while they sleep, keeping the heated air circulating around their bodies.
If the temperature dips super low, pigeons enter a state of torpor, where their bodies barely use any energy. In torpor, pigeons can lower their body temperature by as many as 50 degrees Fahrenheit and still survive. Unfortunately, because their body temperature is so low, their reaction time is also decreased. They’re reduced to little more than birdsicles, available for pigeon pinching and snacking upon, whether by falcons or hungry New Yorkers. I think I’d stick with the Snuggie.
2. Roaches. Yes, they’re disgusting. Yes, they make us sick. But they’re also geniuses at eluding the cold. In frigid weather, roaches congregate in our walls, enjoying the balmy clime while everybody outside freezes. Roaches actually scurry behind our wallpaper year-round, enjoying the benefits of our climate-controlled lifestyle. By keeping things comfortable for ourselves, we’re also giving roaches their Eternal Springtime.
3. Rats. Norway rats, the primary rat species in New York City (some would say the only rat species in New York City), are master diggers. Given the choice of sleeping on your couch or in a hole, the Norway rat digs dirt every time. In the wild, they burrow deep underground to escape the ice. But here’s the thing about New York City: The place is like an iceberg, and not because it’s cold. Sure, above the surface giant skyscrapers stretch up to the clouds, masses of people push and sway across the streets and in and out of buildings, taxis stop and go at traffic lights. But that’s only the half of it.
New York City extends hundreds of feet underground. Subway tunnels snake beneath the streets; utility ducts worm from place to place, electrifying and gassing up our buildings; shoots of sewer and stormwater drains jettison fluids to their proper places. The subterranean activities that keep us going also make for The. Most. Amazing. Ratland. Ever. Remember, rats live underground anyway. When you see a rat peeking at you from a half-eaten bag of French fries on the street? That rat does not live on the street. After she scarfs down your food, she’s headed down under to catch some zzz’s and make some babies.
In nature, rats just go underground in the winter and wait out the freeze. In New York City, all of the things we humans stick underground produce heat, which means there’s no freeze to beat. They snarfle around on your discarded cans of Beanie Weenies and your dropped potato chips and then descend to Ratland, population gazillion, courtesy of you and me.
4. Squirrels. Little known fact: Squirrels are loners. Sure, squirrels love a good trunk chase, but most of the time they prefer burying their acorns alone. When it gets cold at night, though, adult squirrels do something really adorable. They sneak out of their bachelor and bachelorette pads and climb into nests with their brothers and sisters. Snuggling up together, they brave icy winter nights with their childhood best friends.
5. Ants. You probably haven’t been running into too many ants these days if you live in a wintery area. Most ant species hunker down with a queen and a few workers and wait for winter to be over. Acorn ants (Temnothorax spp.), for example, nap in your acorns right now, taking it easy and riding out the frosty months.
Other ant species are snow bunnies, waiting for winter to really get rolling. The winter ant (Prenolepis impairis) digs nests 12 feet deep. That’s like a group of 10-year-olds digging a hole more than a mile below the Earth’s surface. Underground, the temperature is more stable than it is out in the ice. Even when temperatures up top sink to the 30s (⁰F), winter ants trundle around in their heated houses at a relatively tropical 64-68°F. They also dig warming tunnels for foraging around the nest. When they feel the chill while out foraging, they run down into one of their tunnels, heat up, and come out toasty, ready for more foraging.
Special thanks to Mike Waldvogel, who knows a bunch about rats and roaches.
Header photo credit: National Park Service