Photo Credit: Stan Tekeila
It’s cold and windy outside, a heated birdbath offers relief to dehydrated birds, and the ever-growing brush pile I started a few years ago is getting a lot of use by birds darting inside to huddle and find respite. I am delighted that the little native plant meadow I planted four years ago, while wilted from the cold, is still giving shelter and providing lots of seeds for birds and other wildlife who cannot find anything else to eat to keep warm. In the cold, calories are king. And finding enough of those to survive can require persistence and creativity. At this time of year, a well-stocked and outfitted backyard can be of great benefit to birds trying to stay warm.
Many birds who tough out the winter weigh in at under 2 ounces. Staying warm is made possible for birds by the spectacular insulating properties of their feathers. As long as their feathers are dry, birds can puff out all those downy feathers and create a very effective shield against cold temperatures. And when they cram together in a roosting area, there is more warmth in a closely knit flock than in a single bird roosting alone. Putting out a roosting box can help these birds conserve energy during the coldest nights. Inside the box or out, birds can sleep with their beaks and ceres (nostrils) under their feathers to keep them from freezing. But their feet and legs are bare….what happens to those?
Would you believe that some birds like Black-capped Chickadees keep their feet at near freezing to conserve calories? Or that birds who eat insects can still find some in the freezing cold under bark, or even frozen on trees? Or that some birds will use snow as an insulator? For all this and more detailed information on how birds handle winter, check out this fascinating article by Bernd Heinrich for Cornell Lab of Ornithology.