Even on the bitterest winter days, wild birds can be seen flitting through the yard, perching on fences and feeders, sipping from a bird bath or hopping through the snow, all the while seemingly unconcerned with hypothermia or frostbite. So how do birds keep warm as the temperatures drop?
What Birds Do to Keep Warm
Birds have many adaptations to keep them safe and comfortable even in freezing weather. While different species use different tactics depending on their body temperature needs, typical strategies for staying warm include…
- Fluffing Up: A bird’s feathers are excellent insulation, and birds have will fluff their feathers to create air pockets that will help maintain their body heat even better. Some birds will grow extra layers of down feathers in the fall to help keep them warmer, and when birds preen, they spread oil over their feathers from a gland above their tail to help waterproof each feather and keep them in excellent condition.
- Storing Fat: In late summer and fall, many birds will feed frantically, increasing their store of body fat. That fat provides another insulating layer to maintain body heat, and it can be used to generate more heat as needed on the chilliest nights. Birds will continue to eat heartily all winter whenever they have the opportunity to add to that fat layer.
- Sunning: On sunny winter days, birds will take advantage of solar radiation by turning their backs to the sun – the broadest part of their bodies – and slightly raising their feathers so the sun’s heat will warm their skin. When a bird is sunning, its wings may droop or it may spread its tail, all in an effort to absorb as much heat as possible.
- Huddling: Small birds often huddle together on cold nights to share body heat. Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice and other birds will even gather in the same cavity through the night, such as an empty bird house, a hollow tree or a roosting box, crowding the space with many warm bodies that will lead to a cozy cuddle all night long.
- Tucking In: Birds will tuck exposed body parts into their warm feathers to preserve body heat. There may seem to be many one-legged birds in winter, but they’re just holding one leg inside their feathers to warm it, and eventually they will switch legs. Birds may also tuck their bills into the feathers of their shoulders or back, which will also allow them to breathe the air warmed by their bodies.
What You Can Do to Help Birds Keep Warm
There are three key things you can give your backyard birds to help stay them warm all winter long. The very hottest options include…
- Good Food: Offer birds high-fat, high-calorie foods in winter so they can build up that fat layer without needing to expend as much energy foraging. Suet, nuts and sunflower seeds are all excellent options that will appeal to a wide variety of bird species. Keep feeders full, especially before and during storms, and birds will always have suitable food to stay warm.
- Fresh Water: Birds can melt snow and ice to drink in winter, but doing so chills their bodies and uses up a lot of calories. If you provide fresh, clean, liquid water in a heated bird bath, the birds can take advantage of that easy water source instead. Keep the bath filled to keep the heater functioning properly, and you’ll be amazed at which birds visit.
- Sturdy Shelter: Leave bird houses up year-round to serve as winter roosting boxes, and include thick evergreen plants as part of your landscaping so birds can escape the worst winter weather. You can build a brush pile or add old Christmas trees to the yard for interim shelter if needed, and specialized roosting boxes are also available that birds will happily use.
While birds are well-equipped to survive even the worst winter weather, if you take a few simple steps to help them meet their needs for good food, clean water and safe shelter in winter, you’ll find that the coldest days can be your hottest time for backyard birding.