Dec 6, 2019 | Featured Web Article

How do Birds Keep Warm in Cold Winter Weather?

Birds have a number of ways to beat the cold, but none so important as their feathers.
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Birds have a number of ways to beat the cold, but none so important as their feathers. You may have noticed how on a very cold day the birds at your feeder seem rounder and more puffed-up than usual. This is a way of keeping warm by raising the feathers to create pockets of warm air and enhance insulation. In addition, many species change their plumage, molting into a fresh thick set of feathers prior to the colder months.

Especially helpful are the very fluffy and soft body feathers known as down. These feathers provide super insulation, much like the goose down we use in coats and comforters.

At night, birds can dramatically slow down their body's metabolic rate (the rate at which the body consumes energy) and lower their body temperature to conserve energy. During very cold nights, small birds such as chickadees and nuthatches may find a tree cavity or birdhouse where they can spend the night, huddled together with several other birds of the same species. Such communal roosting permits the birds to share body heat. There have been reports of as many as 20 pygmy nuthatches sharing a single tree cavity. Ducks can swim in water that is almost frozen because their feathers have natural oils and are waterproof. Waterproof feathers retain all of their insulating ability. Ducks have a netlike system of blood vessels in their legs that brings warm blood from the heart alongside cold blood returning from the feet, keeping the feet warm in icy water.

What do birds do when it's windy?

When it comes to wind, birds have many coping behaviors. They face the wind so moving air does not ruffle their feathers, thereby robbing them of the insulating heat layer between feathers and skin. They stay low to the ground, where the wind speed is lower, and in the lee of any objects that can deflect the wind: tree trunks, power poles, fenceposts, shrubs, grass clumps, buildings. Birds also move as little as possible, thus conserving energy. Because they keep to dense cover, birding in high winds may be a bird-free proposition.

Anything I can do to help?

We all know by now that birds can survive without our help in the winter. Some ornithologists have even suggested that bird feeding is more beneficial to us (humans) than it is to the birds. Be that as it may, studies have shown that birds with access to bird feeders in winter survive at a higher rate than birds without access to feeders. The difference between the haves and the have-nots is not huge, but it's there. Feeding birds in winter, if done right, is a good thing for the birds (and for us, too).

Here are 10 ways you can help feeder birds in bad weather »



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  • New to birding...newbie question. We spotted what we thought was a Sapsucker at our patio feeders in December. The folks at our birding supply store told us that Sapsuckers are only here in Summer months and what we saw was a Flicker. I thought I new what a Flicker was and this did not look like a Flicker. It was thinner and more smooth looking but did have the Woodpecker Bill.
    by Edmund Steinman, Wed, 08 Jan 2020
  • We just signed up and get your magazine via email. Will we be receiving a printed copy?Ed [email protected]
    by Edmund Steinman, Wed, 08 Jan 2020
  • Chickadees are adorable and intelligent. Chickadees have brains that are the most like human brains. Chickadees are personable, lively, and have their own language. Chickadees form lasting pair bonds; and are very good parents. Love.
    by Merl Elton, Tue, 24 Dec 2019
  • I'm still worried about my backyard birds even though myth #3 says they won't starve if I stop feeding in the middle of winter. I'm concerned because I'm moving in a couple of weeks to a new house and the winter's in northern Ohio get pretty challenging. Should I start backing off slowly on there food or just stop when we move?
    by Vince Bove, Sat, 14 Dec 2019
  • Birds make our world a wonderful and beautiful place to live.
    by Mac Eco, Mon, 09 Dec 2019