As you can see, wild birds are very good at surviving in cold weather. It’s still possible to help them, and other wildlife gets through the worst that winter has to offer. An Arctic Clipper came into the Peach State in the last few days with a whole load of cold weather aboard. Of course, we can stay inside and warm when it’s cold outside. We wear thick winter coats, hats, and gloves when we go outside to keep the cold out.
People don’t like it when it’s cold.
Not with our bird friends. They see it as a fight for life and death when dealing with freezing weather. As a good thing, many birds are well-equipped to deal with the cold.
It’s one way that they stay warm. They fluff their feathers to keep their bodies warm. There is a lot of air between the feathers that are fluffed up. This is good insulation. Tiny muscles in the Carolina chickadee’s bodywork together to make some of its 2,000 feathers stand up.
Like the American goldfinch, other birds grow more feathers as winter nears, which helps them stay warm. The extra feathers provide extra insulation.
Another way birds keep warm is by shaking. It’s not surprising that small birds get cold more than more giant birds, so when the temperature drops below freezing, they shiver almost constantly, even if it’s just a little. Some birds, like the black-capped chickadee, can sleep while they shiver.
If an American goldfinch is shivering, it can keep itself five times as warm as if it wasn’t shivering.
Keeping warm in cold weather also takes more energy to stay alive. When it is freezing outside, hummingbirds can starve if they don’t eat enough food to keep their bodies warm. Birds like turkey vultures and mourning doves can lower their body temperatures on cold nights, which helps them save energy.
It’s true that some birds, like hummingbirds and black-capped chickadees, go all out with this. This group of feathered mites will go into torpor to stay warm in the cold weather. In this state, the birds remain still, and their body temperature and respiratory and heart rates fall. This happens when the bird goes into “torpor,” which means that the bird’s body temperature may go down from 107 degrees Fahrenheit to the mid-80s.
Since birds don’t have feathers to protect their feet from frostbite, you would think that they would get hurt. They aren’t, though. This is because a bird’s foot doesn’t have a lot of muscle tissue, which would make it very cold. They also often stand on one foot while keeping the other close to their bodies, so they stay warm. Birds like to keep their feet covered when they get cold or tired, so they stand on the other foot and hide their feet in their feathers.
They don’t hurt their legs or feet when they swim in ice-cold water. They can close the veins on the outside of their legs and feet. As blood moves from the heart through arteries, it moves closer to blood that is already warm. This warms and protects the legs and feet from damage.
Quail will stay warm at night by roosting together in a tight circle with their wings a little raised. Each bird looks out. The way the quail are arranged lets them see predators coming from any direction and allows them to share their body heat, which keeps them warmer than if they roost alone.
Besides the thick cover, birds will also roost in tree cavities, artificial nests, and other places where it’s warm. Cold nights will bring flocks of birds to dense trees like conifers and additional thick covers, such as blue jays, mourning doves, and northern cardinals.
All of these birds will be spending the night in places where they can nest and roost. They’ll also be found in areas where they can find natural cavities. During freezing weather, birds tend to leave their roosts earlier in the afternoon than they would in warmer weather.
You can do many things to help your bird friends stay warm in the winter. First, give them places to roost like brush piles, dense shrubs, vines, and trees that stay green all winter. When possible, keep any dead trees that have holes in them.
Set up nesting and roosting boxes in your yard, too, so that birds can live there. Many boxes with different-sized holes will help more animals than many with the same-sized holes. When the weather is cold, safe, warm places to stay at night are as important as food.
It would help put suet and black oil sunflower seeds in your feeders.
Because your actions could make the difference between life and death for the birds that live outside your back door, you will feel warm even in the coldest weather.
- Keep your feeders supplied, particularly in the morning. After a long, chilly night, your backyard birds require high-energy feeds such as black oil sunflower seeds, high-quality suet, peanuts, and peanut butter.
- Clear snow and ice from your bird feeders. My feeders are buried with snow and require cleaning for my birds to reach their seeds and suet. I prefer to do this early in the morning to ensure they have a hot meal!
- Find a low-cost birdbath warmer at a garden shop or online. Connect it to an external extension cable that is UL registered and certified, position it in your birdbath or shallow water trough, and you will delight flocks of thirsty birds all winter. I use a flat stone to cover my heater since it appears more natural than a bright metal thing to the birds. However, you do not need to do so; the low voltage and protective coil cover ensure birds’ safety.
- Provide roosting boxes for birds to congregate at night. These should have interior perches or open mesh connected to the walls for birds to cling to throughout the night. The roost boxes should include a retractable clean-out to allow frequent dirt and droppings removal. I fill mine with wood shavings and sawdust, making cleaning much more accessible.
- Create a brush pile to provide refuge and food for your feathery guests, especially during blizzard conditions. Begin with a layer of dried leaves and gradually add more enormous trunks of small trees and saplings in a crisscross pattern, creating nooks for birds to forage for microscopic insects and remain warm. Continue to add to the pile as branches fall and accumulate in your yard. If you have evergreens, you may use them to create a ‘roof’ on top of the bank.
- Coniferous trees should be planted! These non-deciduous trees provide excellent all-around habitat for your birds. Consult local farmers and nurseries for natural plants that thrive in your region. Numerous fir, pine, and evergreen trees and bushes provide food, refuge, nesting sites, and predator-proof hiding spots. Their dense growth habit makes them perfect winter survival refuges for your backyard wild birds.
- While wild birds have evolved physiologically to withstand winter storms and freezing temperatures, people can still significantly impact their survival rates. And who doesn’t want their days to be brightened by more vibrant, cheerful singing birds?