Perhaps because I am not a native Northeasterner (my family moved out here from Southern California when I was a teenager), certain things about wintertime amaze me—even now. I remember the first time I saw snow falling. I ejected from my classroom seat and ran outdoors, holding my hands palms-up and dancing around. It was white, as it fell anyway, and cold, also expected, but I did not realize how WET it would be. My thin sneakers got soaked that day; I’ll never forget how chilled I was!
This is never a problem for ducks, I noticed back then and continue to marvel at now. Ducks of various kinds hang around in cold weather in the Northeast, in frigid water as well as walking around, or even sleeping standing up on snow and ice. Many times I’ve seen scoters of various kinds, and eiders, in calmer reaches of the Atlantic Ocean (including bays and harbors), as well as inlets, marshes, and estuaries. Inland, where I reside now, there are plenty of mallards and wood ducks congregating in and around our lakes, ponds, streams and rivers.
“Don’t their feet get cold?!” was my initial reaction, especially since my own feet, even with socks and shoes, easily turn to blocks of ice!
To go beyond the simple explanation that human feet are more sensitive than bird feet, I looked it up. Did you know it’s a matter of blood flow? The veins and arteries in duck feet and legs cycle. Warm blood travels downward in the arteries towards the feet, passing cold blood coming up in the veins; as they pass, some warmth is transferred over to the colder blood. So when the arterial blood finally reaches the feet, it is cooler. Not as cold as the frigid water, ice or snow, that the bird may be walking, sleeping, or paddling upon—but still, not a radical difference. Thus heat loss is reduced and the cold is tolerated, yet the duck feet still function.
For a full, and fascinating, rundown of winter bird myths AND facts, check out this article from the Birds & Blooms site.