Be Your Own Birder

Birdy, It’s Cold Outside

I love winter – the beauty of the snow, how it gently drifts from the sky to blanket the landscape and muffle sound, as well as the bracing chill in a deep breath of winter air and the icy blue of the winter sky. The great irony is that I hate being cold, and thanks to a legacy of poor circulation, I often am. Even living in Florida, I often wear extra socks or bundle up a bit, and I occasionally wear gloves to bed (which does beautiful things for dry skin, by the way).

Yet birds aren’t bothered by cold, and they often flit about even more energetically and with greater enthusiasm on chilly days. Of course, that extra energy can help keep them warm, but birds actually have many ways they keep toasty warm no matter what the outdoor temperature.

Siberian Jay – With Ice-Covered Eyebrows! – Photo by Dante Aguiar

How Birds Keep Warm

  • Birds’ feathers are amazing insulation, creating pockets of body-warmed air next to the skin, especially when fluffed. Why are down coats and comforters so cozy? Ask the birds…
  • Birds’ feet and legs have very few nerves and less need for warmth, so most blood doesn’t travel to the extremities and instead stays warmer in the body core.
  •  Birds often gorge in late autumn to add extra fat reserves to their bodies, which provides extra insulation to species that don’t migrate to warmer climates.
  • Birds will tuck their legs up into their feathers to keep them warm, alternating legs at regular intervals to more evenly distribute the heat to their limbs.
  • Smaller birds will gather in roosting flocks, huddling together in cozy spaces such as hollow trees or empty birdhouses to share body heat during cold nights.
  • Some bird species enter a state of torpor – or mild hibernation – during cold snaps, lowering their metabolism to conserve energy and survive until the temperature rises.
Common Redpoll in Snow - Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Common Redpoll in Snow – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

We Can Help Birds Keep Warm

Even though birds are well able to keep warm in the cold, severe cold snaps can still be dangerous, particularly to smaller birds or in areas that don’t typically experience strong winters. It’s easy, however, to take different steps to help birds keep warm and survive even brutally cold temperatures.

  • Offer high-calorie, high-energy foods that are easy to eat. Suet, shelled nuts, peanut butter, and sunflower hearts are top choices, as well as whole nuts and sunflower seeds.
  • Ensure feeders are full, especially as birds are frantically seeking good food before taking shelter, as well as immediately after the weather breaks and birds are refueling.
  • Provide liquid water with heated bird baths so birds can drink safely without wasting energy melting snow or ice that can lower their body temperatures even further.
  • Provide safe, sturdy shelter with roost boxes, brush piles, evergreen landscaping, windbreaks, and other options so all birds can find safe areas to wait out the cold.
  • Keep your distance from birds and keep pets and children away as well, so birds can feed and visit the bird baths easily without being chased or feeling stressed.

Of course, we have to keep ourselves warm at the same time! Always take proper precautions if you’re out birding in the bitter cold, including wearing layers, covering exposed skin, staying safe on icy roads, and keeping hydrated. The further the temperatures drop, the more birds you may see and the more interesting warm-up behaviors you may witness. Keep warm, and happy birding!

American Robin in Snow - Photo by Jordan Jones
American Robin in Snow – Photo by Jordan Jones

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