All About Birds Blog

How Birds Survive the Cold: Feathers + Food = Warmth

By on Thursday, January 16th, 2014 - 40 Comments

Norm Townsend, http://flic.kr/p/dWJzh5

By Charles Eldermire, Bird Cams Project Leader

If you were one of the many bird watchers who fell into the single-degree clutches of the Polar Vortex last week, you may have wondered how birds survive such brutally cold temperatures. I sure did—I spent much of the cold spell sitting in a cozy house, furnace on, wrapped in warm fleece, with a cup of tea at my side. Meanwhile, there was a near-constant flashing of wings outside at my birdfeeders—not to mention on our two live FeederWatch cams and, doubtless, at your feeders as well.

On days like these I am always astounded that there are any birds left alive, especially considering that most winter feeder visitors weigh in around 10–25 grams (the weight of 2-5 nickels)! But it turns out that birds employ many of the same strategies I was using inside my house—plus a couple more—to keep their motors running through cold snaps.

So here’s my 5-step survival guide for birds in the cold, complete with links to some fascinating research papers (or at least they were fascinating to me, back in the days when I was a graduate student researching winter survival in Montana).

Steve Shelasky, http://flic.kr/p/dTp7qF

A mixed group of birds at a snowy feeder, by Steve Shelasky via Birdshare.

1. Get some friends to hang out with

Especially if the weather is crummy. Ever notice that nearly all of the birds that hang around in the winter do so in flocks? Having other birds around makes it less likely that something will eat you; more eyes = less chance of a predator sneaking up. Plus, if something does sneak up, you only have to be faster than the guy foraging next to you! Friends are also good at letting you know where the primo food is.

Kathleen, http://flic.kr/p/99DQhB

Blue Jays fill up on needed calories, by Kathleen via Birdshare.

2. Eat. As much as possible

Park yourself in front of a feeder, some seedy plants, or anywhere there is food (preferably the heaviest, fattiest foods possible, like black-oil sunflower and suet, yum!) and consume. If anyone gets in your way, chase them off and keep eating–unless, of course, they chase you off first. However, don’t eat too much, because it also makes you slower and more likely to get eaten.

Mike Wisnicki, http://flic.kr/p/iZxTrU

A fluffed up Black-capped Chickadee by Mike Wisnicki via Birdshare.

3. When you can’t eat more, get puffy and rest

Your fluffy down feathers help complete the food + feathers = warmth equation. With food in your belly, you can use your metabolism to generate heat. Feathers, in addition to keeping cold air away from your skin, do a great job of trapping body heat instead of letting it dissipate. If you get the chance, tuck a foot or a whole leg up in there. But if you’re a woodpecker–tough luck, because you don’t have any down feathers.

Barbara Lynne, http://flic.kr/p/bvJbsy

A Downy Woodpecker in the wind by Barbara Lynne via Birdshare.

4. Stay out of the wind

Here’s an important hint: if the wind is blowing, go to the other side of the tree and avoid it. Seems simple, right? But it works–trust me (or trust Dr. Thomas Grubb and his 1977 treatise Weather-dependent foraging behavior of some birds in a deciduous woodland: horizontal adjustments). And for any birders out there—you might be surprised how often you see birds doing this (whether to dodge wind or to avoid rain or hot sun) once you start looking for it.

avicentric, http://flic.kr/p/6cGo7H

An Eastern Screech-Owl roosting in a tree cavity by avicentric via Birdshare.

5. Roost in a cavity

You’ll never find a warmer spot to sleep than in your own down feathers, nestled in a nook small enough that you can warm it up with any extra heat that does escape. Old woodpecker cavities, crannies beneath the eaves of houses, even a tunnel in the snow… they’re all warmer than spending the night (literally) out on a limb. As an additional trick, some small birds such as kinglets and chickadees can drop their body temperature and go into controlled hypothermia to save energy.

Bluebirds, Bob Vuxinic, http://flic.kr/p/g2X2Ek

Eastern Bluebirds at a suet feeder by Bob Vuxinic via Birdshare.

6. (Bonus step) Put it all together

Finally, whenever possible, combine guidelines 1-4 for the ultimate in energy-saving & crop-filling goodness (as illustrated here by these puffy Eastern Bluebirds, perched comfortably within bill’s reach of a cake of fatty suet).

(Top image: Dark-eyed Junco by Norm Townsend via Birdshare.)

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40 Comments

  1. Gale Mirzayanov says:

    Really great advice – thank you. We do all that we can. I was surprised to see that during the polar vortex visit we were visited by a flock of blackbirds, and we probably went through $300 or more worth of the bird food in that one week. Also, we invite a local “crow police” family to hang around some of the time, to keep hawks our of the immediate neighborhood.

    • Claire Christensen says:

      After reading your post here yesterday, I noticed my resident crow was at the top of my neighbour’s tree, squawking his head off at a huge hawk who was intently watching my bird feeders. Since he wasn’t having much success dislodging him, I grabbed my snow shovel and banged it on the side of my house. That did it! I got a good picture of them first, though. I love your term, Crow Police!

  2. Jan Larish says:

    Thanks for the info. As I watched the birds last week, I kept asking my husband (
    who knows everything :) )how these little birds were going to survive. So your info was much needed and helps me to explain things like this to my grandchildren

  3. Hi Cornell;

    Thanks for using one of my images (the woodpecker) – however it’s linking to the photographer that is listed above me.

    Cheers,
    Barb/

  4. Fay Seketa says:

    My dear friend and I were enjoying cardinals, chickadees, doves, and a couple of squirrels at her feeders when all of a sudden, a red tailed hawk swooped in and grabbed one of the cardinals. I may stand corrected but I fear group feeding may, also, provide improved opportunity for hungry predators.

    • Christopher Dougherty says:

      Fay Hawks need to survive too. Many times they cull out the older, and diseased of the flock. Keeping everyone healthy. I know it’s difficult and distressing to watch, but just keep in mind that that’s the way Mother Nature planned it. She’s tough and often unforgiving but she knows what she’s doing.

  5. Liz Minnich says:

    I really worry about the Anna’s Hummingbirds that have increasingly been overwintering in our area. We are in the foothills of the Cascades in Western Washington. We had severely cold weather earlier this winter – single digits several days in a row. They certainly let me know early in the morning, just before dawn, that I needed to tend to the feeders immediately! I had about ten irritated hummingbirds chattering and buzzing around my head while I put out thawed feeders.

    • focus503 says:

      We’re in Portland. My lady had one land on her when she was putting up the feeder one morning, before we realized they start coming round 30 mins before dawn.

      I also noticed that one of the regulars had taken to roosting on my porch light next to the feeder, instead of on the dogwood across the driveway.

  6. Margaret Bowser says:

    Don’t forget a fresh supply of unfrozen water. I found they fought more over access to the water basin than they did at the feeders when we took the polar plunge here in Nebraska

    • Karen Casey says:

      I totally agree, Margaret. I don’t have a heater for my birdbath, which can be hard to get to anyway in the deep snow (and icy stairs!). I found that plastic take out containers work great. I fill them a few times a day. If they freeze, the ice pops out in seconds under warm water. Clean it and re-fill. The blue jays were fighting over the water bowls, then went for the peanuts. I even had a flock of Robins come by and drink. I put some g=fresh bagged cranberries out for them and they seemed to appreciate the treat during that brutal cold snap and snow cover we had.

      • Jacalyn L. Perry says:

        I found that the plastic bottom of a planter works great. It’s sturdy and shallow enough that the birds don’t drown. It doesn’t freeze as fast either. I take out hot water in a bucket. Turn the planter bottom over and pour the hot water on it, and the ice pops out. Then I just refill it. I rehabilitate wildlife, specializing in birds, and this is what I do for my outdoor aviaries too.

    • Margaret Bowser says:

      After seeing a number of posts from people who didn’t have heated bird baths or theirs had broken I wanted to post a link to a video I made of the heated one I made – It is inexpensive and I put the instructions right on the video – please share it:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lECmHvIWMSQ

  7. Mel Tolentino says:

    I feed black oil sunflower seeds & suet also but have hung several roosting houses for the birds to gather in to hide from the wind & snow.

  8. Thanks for using my grouping of birds at the feeder during a snowstorm as an illustration. My wife & I are constantly amazed at the durability of these small birds to survive these frigid days especially, nights. My column in the Longmeadow News this coming week along with 4 images, addresses this exact topic.

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  12. Jay Banks says:

    Now I see that what I basically do to survive is a natural recipe: stay with friends, preferably eating something… Thank you for the nice article! It must have taken a lot of observing, huh? Looking forward to read more on this site!

  13. Louise Nomani says:

    The water concern is critical here in central Maine. I fill a 2 gallon black rubber pail with warm water and recess it into the snow. That protects it from the wind and helps to insulate it from the cold. The water
    stays open most of the day with little help especially if the sun is shining.

  14. Kathie Norris says:

    I noticed that the chickadees had trouble staying on my feeders.
    Then I collected some pine cones and stuffed them with honey peanut butter, seed and mixed in a little flour for easier digestion and placed them deep in shrubs where I knew they took cover. Hope they had a special treat there!
    Happy Birding to All!
    Kathie in SE Denver

  15. Mark Caponigro says:

    It seems to be accepted evolutionary biological theory that feathers appeared originally in small theropod dinosaurs in the Jurassic period (e.g. Archaeopteryx lithographica, but there is much more diverse fossil evidence from the Cretaceous period, especially from China) as a body covering, an adaptation of small homeotherms to control body temperature. The further development, of feathers as structures enabling gliding, then full flight, came later (still in the Jurassic, though).

    Another interesting adaptation, enabling birds to endure winter temperatures, is the structure of their naked legs (tarsi) and feet, which marvelously do not shed much heat at all.

    I would be interested to know more about the eyes of birds, and how they are affected by the cold.

  16. Jacalyn L. Perry says:

    I always wondered why the skin on birds feet don’t rip off when they get wet and then stand on the ice. My gloves do.

  17. Melinda Luke says:

    I don’t live in the ‘water frozen solid’ zone anymore thankfully but when I did… There are dog bowls that you can plug in that have heaters in them to keep the water from freezing. I would think they’d be good for the birds as long as you keep them clean and add water as needed.

  18. carolyn reay says:

    I have a heated birdbath. During all this below zero weather starlings come in the late afternoon and bathe. they come in flocks and empty the birdbath. What keeps the water from freezing on them. They sit in the trees preening and flitting their feathers. What keeps them from freezing?

  19. Kat says:

    I was just Questioning myself, how in the world do these little creatures survive the polar votex? Comment from Ohio

  20. Jean-Louis Rochette says:

    Even in very cold weather I can see Robins in a wooded area of our City but they cannot be seen when the wind is high. Chickadees by the hundreds will feed nonstop but not when the wind is high. I feed 30 stations with more than a full cup of black oiled sunflower seed every day and there is never anything left the next day, it must certainly be their fuel and comfort.
    Oddly enough Blue Gays are nowhere to be seen or heard in this wooded area and I wonder why, or may be they are all at backyard feeders. Who knows. White Breasted Nuthatches are also quite visible at my stations but more discreet.

  21. Virginia -Beatrice_Aviary says:

    When I still lived in Illinois, I found an inexpensive poultry troth heater for my waterfall pond so birds were enjoying a good splash with weather really cold, and have a larger multilevel pond here in Arizona, as well as a small birdbath on the closest patio (which fills twice a day on the garden dripper system).

    I used to resent the hawks and owls, but since watching the nest of Redtails for a couple of years, I have affection for them just as for the songbirds (but I buy grapes at the store mostly to reward the mockingbirds for their lovely serenades.

  22. Earl Hatleberg says:

    But why don’t their FEET freeze? They aren’t all hunkered down with their feathers covering their feet which are gripping a sub-freezing branch…

  23. Sandi Saylor says:

    What a wonderful post – thank you! I had no idea that woodpeckers lacked down feathers. We’re in the middle of an unusual cold spell here (Portland, OR) and just yesterday I noticed a flicker and a downy hanging onto a tree, trying to get out of the icy wind. Now I know why!

  24. Gabriele says:

    Interesting article – thank you.
    I would recommend Thor Hanson’s “Feathers”, a fascinating and quite readable book about this amazing topic: how birds are insulated and waterproofed; how feathers have adapted for speed or for silence.

  25. Sharon Hayes says:

    Glad to see someone addressed the water situation. It’s as important as the food. I change it several times when it’s below freezing here. The little ones like to drink from the ant cups that hang above the hummingbird feeders in the summer so I leave them up all year long and have shallow pans on the ground for the bigger birds and the squirrels.

  26. John Zang says:

    I’ve been feeding the birds for years and this year they are setting a record for the amount of black sunflower seed eaten, due to our brutally cold weather here in northern Illinois. As I top off the feeders in early morning, I’m greeted by lots of chatter from the nearby junipers where many nesting birds are welcoming their new supply of food. They do eat a lot of the high energy suet as well, especially the downey woodpeckers and one northern flicker. Recently, the American goldfinches are really feasting at the thistle feeders. I worry that our 15 year old heated birdbath won’t make it through this winter, but so far so good as the birds rely on this as well. We really love seeing all the northern cardinals that visit our feeders this time of year. Their beauty really stands out in contrast with this winter wonderland we’re experiencing this year.

  27. Hiram Shaw says:

    I’m enjoying watching the “pecking order” at my sunflower seed feeders. Downy Woodpeckers are #1, Cardinals #2. Although the large flock of House Sparrows try to hog the feeders, Gold and House Finches can hold their own, as well as the Chickadees. Crows and Bluejays seem to have vanished for a while, but later, the Crows will clean out a suet cage in no time. Thanks for the interesting info.

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  29. Linda Greenow says:

    Thanks for a very interesting and helpful post! I wonder if birds use big brush piles for shelter in winter? Or would thata be too close to the ground? Brush piles must provide good protection from the wind. And they must be at least slightly warm, with all the leaves and other stuff decomposing in there. But maybe birds have learned to stay away if there are predators, too?

  30. Bridgett says:

    I too have gone through more suet and seed this winter than any other previous winter. My bird bath heater quit working and I can not find one in my area.
    I only see 1 male cardinal now and have heard him singing, with no replies.
    The Robins normally arrive this time of year and I fear they may not arrive any time soon. I would like to know, with the extreme cold, all this snow, with no ground showing and a winter that keeps hanging on, how is it going to effect breeding?

    • Jacalyn L. Perry says:

      I doubt if it will have much of an impact on the breeding season, but I will know soon, when the orphans start coming in. Birds have a way of dealing with the weather. Unlike us, they have the option of moving farther south, or east, or west… where the weather is warmer for them. But they always manage to find their way back.

  31. Ricky says:

    To be honest, I think albatrosses have a more complex way of being warm. If anyone finds a way albatrosses survive the cold, please reply! :-D

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