Winter Ducks & Empathy

Ducks and Geese Enjoying Winter Sun

I spoke with a nice gentleman down in Georgia who was concerned about ducks he was seeing outside his apartment because it was down to the single digits (let’s assume 5°F) last night.

Now, if you’re a naked ape, like he and I, and used to temperatures in the 50’s to 90’s, like someone from Georgia, then the single digits are freaking cold! That is a freezer in fact since the recommended temperature for storing meat is 15°F or below. Yet, to a duck that’s balmy.

Ducks Choosing to be Out in Snow Storm and Blowing Winds
They have a shelter with nice dry hay a few feet away should they want it, but they don’t.

Realize though that measure is the air temperature. The ground and water temperatures in Georgia even during a deep cold snap are probably more like a warm (to a duck) 50°F since it is Georgia so the ducks are doubtlessly delighted with their temperate pond or sitting on the relatively warm ground after having migrated south from somewhere like Vermont.

Rather than being thin skinned humans like us the ducks have thick downy feathers that keep them warm even through our deeply cold winters up here in Vermont. This is why we Vermonters wear layers, and layers, and layers…

Kita Practicing Organizing Ducks and Goose

While I’ve never lived in the deep south, I can’t take the heat, I can well imagine that someone who is acclimated to the temperatures of Georgia would be quite concerned about the ducks when the air temperatures drop to the single digits. To the human’s skin that feels very cold but to the ducks they’re just fine in their winter jackets and high metabolism. They even have special circulation for keeping their feet warm.

He asked about feeding them and that is fine with me, probably quite fine with the ducks. Local authorities sometimes don’t like that but long time readers know I advice walking on the grass…

Ducks Enjoying Lower Pond in Winter

So what is the lesson here? Our empathy doesn’t always work. Rather sometimes really what we’re doing is projectionism – that is to say we put our own feelings on others rather than actually understanding what they are feeling. This is a way of modeling the world and has it’s function but should not be over used. What feels cold to humans acclimated to warmer temperatures is quite comfortable to other animals, and even to humans like our family that live at lower temperatures. On the flip side, the heat of Georgia or Texas would feel very hot to northern ducks and me but may be fine to someone acclimated to that climate – thus why so many birds migrate north for the summer. Contrary to the funny poster: Just because you’re cold doesn’t mean you need to let them in.

Outdoors: 4°F/-34°F Sunny to some clouds later in the day
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/57°F

Daily Spark: Void where prohibited. Walk on the grass, barefoot. Watch out for turds.

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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8 Responses to Winter Ducks & Empathy

  1. laurie says:

    Good point about projecting our feelings onto animals. It made me think of all the people that heat their chicken coops. I recently saw a post where a woman knit capes for her chickens! Don’t get me wrong, I spoil my animals all of the time, but I try to understand their “chickeness” or “dogness”, etc… so my actions aren’t a detriment to them.

  2. traye says:

    One truly nice thing about being in the south on a farm is my animals can feed off the land for twelve months. Right now I have clover, turnips, radish, kale, mustard, rye, oats and rye grass in my pasture. My chickens are still finding something in the leaves in the forest area and the pigs are still rooting up whatever they find in the forest and low areas, in addition to the hay and pasture that is always available.
    You have some brilliant tricks to get your animals through some tough conditions. My boys and girls are softies by comparison.

  3. Patrick says:


    If it helps your friend in Georgia, I have Muscovy duck (South American warm-weather birds) that line up for the chance to swim in a kiddie-pool of water I fill for them in the cold days when their other water freezes solid. We had below-zero wind chills last week. The birds have to move fast, because that pool freezes in under an hour.

    The ducks look nice when the sun causes the ice crystals on their feathers to glisten.

  4. Sally H says:

    I became completely convinced of my animals’ ability to keep comfortable when I saw my sheep with snow on their backs hours after snow had stopped falling. If that snow wasn’t melting, their wool was certainly holding in enough heat to keep them warm.

    I look for the opposite on my compost piles — I know they are cooking like they should when it is the first place the snow melts (or doesn’t stick.)

  5. Nance says:

    for 13 years, we had a dog or she had us. she was part poodle, pekanease, lasa alpho and who knows what. Her coat was so heavy we had to leave her outside. We tried keeping her in and in was a very cold Midwest winter but she was miserable in the house.

  6. Jake says:

    Couldn’t agree more Walter, and I think we actually do harm to the animals we have empathy for in some cases due to that empathy. My favorite is a lot of folks I know that want to treat dogs like people….or pigs like people for that matter. When it gets below freezing here people freak out about livestock being outside! I know folks that treat their favorite pooch like a person and then can’t figure out why their dog is a neurotic mess…I’d be messed up if everyone I was around treated me like a dog instead of a person!

  7. Tim says:

    “then the single digits are is freaking cold!”… I think “are” is correct, “is” may not be wrong either, but I know both are not allowed.

    “long time readers know I advice walking on the grass…” advice vs. advise . You advise by giving advice.

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