Birding: How birds survive winter |

Birding: How birds survive winter

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

Winter coping tactics are a must for us as well as for the birds. Just as we rely on coats, hats, and mittens to keep us warm, birds employ a number of methods to survive the adverse conditions of winter.

Birds adjust their feathers to create air pockets, which helps them to keep warm. This “fluffing up” of feathers actually provides an insulating air space and makes the birds appear fatter or puffed up.

Most birds shiver for short-term adjustments to the cold temperatures. Shivering converts muscular energy into heat, but the energy must soon be replenished.

Small birds conserve energy overnight by decreasing their body temperature. This is called “controlled hypothermia.” Chickadees can drop their body temperature about 12-15 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing them to conserve about 25 percent of their energy every hour.

While birds are equipped to withstand most winter weather, survival can be made easier by providing food, an open source of water (heated if necessary), and protection from the elements with natural plant cover, a brush pile or a roosting box.

Bird feeders can be an important food source during winter. When severe weather impacts wild food supplies, some species of birds will turn to feeders as a critical food resource. It is during these times that feeders play their most vital role.

If a storm is of long duration or extreme impact, a feeding station may mean the difference between life and death for these birds.

Food provides birds with the energy, stamina, and nutrition they need. An ample supply of high-calorie foods such as black oil sunflower, safflower, peanuts, tree nuts, millet, suet nuggets, and suet is crucial to a bird’s survival. These ingredients are found in many available seed blends and food offerings.

Suet, suet bits, peanut butter, and both peanuts in and out of the shell are great winter foods. They provide high-calorie energy and protein when nuts and insects are more difficult to find. These ingredients help the birds stay warmer. There are many suet choices with additives such as fruits, nuts, and insects to make them even tastier to the birds.

Bird-food cylinders are a win-win for both you and your birds. Cylinders are long-lasting, allowing you fewer trips to fill the feeder in the cold weather. The birds stay longer, eating at the feeder instead of grabbing a morsel and quickly flying away to eat it elsewhere.

Providing a water source in winter is a wonderful way to attract a variety of birds, such as the American Robin, that won’t normally visit feeders. This source of water will be used for both drinking and bathing. Available drinking water also allows birds to maintain a healthy metabolism to stay warm and hydrated. Bathing is especially important in cold weather to help keep feathers in top insulating condition and waterproof.

You may want to use a heated bird bath or add a heater to your existing plastic, metal, or stone bird bath. This will help make some water available even on the coldest day. I would not recommend using a concrete or clay birdbath in the winter as they are made from very porous materials. The water gets in the pours, freezes, expands, and could possibly break the birdbath.

By us taking care of the birds during the winter, they take care of us by providing many hours of viewing entertainment.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.

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