How do birds manage to survive freezing cold temperatures when we’re hiding indoors avoiding frostbite? Nature has equipped them with some clever mechanisms to combat the cold.
Want to give them extra nutrition in the winter? See our Guide to Best Birdseed.
How Birds Manage Cold Weather
Ever wonder how wild birds stay warm when the temperature outside is freezing cold?
Let’s look at how they are equipped to manage in frigid weather.
Birdy, It’s Cold Outside
As record-setting low temperatures froze parts of the United States and Canada recently, it’s hard to imagine how wild birds manage the cold. With such tiny bodies and exposed legs, why don’t they freeze?
Here in southwestern Ontario, Canada, it was chilly (-24° C | -11° F) plus windchill, which was enough to risk frostbite, though not nearly as cold as some other areas.
While winter may not be their favorite season, it is curious to see how the birds manage in very cold conditions and have done so for millions of years.
1High Body Temperature
You might not expect it, but the normal body temperature of birds (105°F | 40°C) is several degrees higher than humans (98.6°F | 36.7°C). That’s a good advantage right there.
They’ve got downy coats! And feathers have several traits that help manage moisture, heat, and cold.
We’ve all seen birds in the winter sun with their feathers puffed up. This creates an air space around their bodies that is warmed by their body heat. Like a little heated tent.
The oil secreted from their uropygial gland or preen gland gives feathers a waterproof coating. That’s why they don’t get cold and soggy in the snow or rain. Grease is the word.
4Built-in Heat Exchangers
Those skinny little legs and feet contain a complex system of veins and arteries (called rete mirabile) that work as heat exchangers, keeping everything circulating and warm. Where our fleshy fingers or toes would freeze, theirs keep functioning.
Another familiar sight is birds standing on one leg with the other tucked up under the body, or tucking their beak or bill in their wing feathers. That’s another way they make use of their own body heat.
Birds naturally take shelter for a safe place to rest away from bone-chilling winds. We have a huge pile of old tree branches at the back of our garden and this is a popular winter motel for several bird species.
While they’re not exactly spooning, birds will cluster together to share body heat. I’ve seen this in the bushes as well as in vacant nesting boxes.
While they may be chatty and active during daylight hours, a cold night may trigger torpor. Torpor is a natural state that lowers a bird’s body temperature and metabolic rate. This allows the body to function with much lower energy needs. It’s like a mini-hibernation but the trade-off is it does leave them more vulnerable to predators.
How Do Birds Survive the Winter at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology goes into greater detail for specific species.
Watch My Bird Feeder
What We Can Do for Wild Birds in the Winter
In average winter conditions, there is no need to provide heated huts or any other human comforts.
Birds have managed cold for millions of years and the basic needs are always the same: food, shelter, and ways to escape predators.
Provide Good Quality Food
The best thing we can do is grow abundant pesticide-free gardens filled with lots of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants that turn to seed. A healthy garden will have plenty of insects, perches, and nesting places for the birds to use throughout the year.
Bird feeders should be kept clean and filled with nutrient-dense feed like black-oil sunflower seeds.
This way the birds can obtain maximum nutrition with minimal energy expended.
Our guide on Choosing the Best Birdseed has everything you need to know.
Provide Running Water
We keep our ponds moving all winter long, both to protect the fish and provide drinking water for wildlife and feral cats.
You can also provide a heated birdbath. Look for one with a shallow bowl and secure places for the birds to perch. Drowning is far too common in deeper bowls.
I mentioned how our old tree branches are the number one resting spot for several species. This is why fall garden cleanup is not recommended: every living thing from microbes to butterflies on up needs a place to overwinter.
Plants that have turned to seed are also important food sources during the winter.
Keep Cats Indoors
Domesticated cats kill record numbers of wild birds each year.
Bird Health & Safety
Grow The Right Plants | The best thing we can do to support wildlife including birds is to grow suitable plants for food and habitat in a pesticide-free environment.
This means growing trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous annuals and perennials that attract the things birds eat like grubs, caterpillars, moths, and countless other critters and provide nesting materials and sites.
Allow Seed Production | As much as possible, any non-invasive plants should be left to produce seeds after flowering and left in place until used up. Seeds may be one of few food sources available in the winter months.
Provide Fresh Water | If there is not a fresh water source nearby, provide one.
Let The Mess Be | Fallen leaves along with dead and decaying matter are all part of the circle of life and how nature nurtures future generations.
Put Up Feeders If Safe To Do So | While bird feeders are enjoyable for us, they are not necessary for bird survival. If you do have them, keep them clean and disinfected. Remove them if there are reports or signs of any communicable diseases. And don’t put out any food if bears or other wild animals are an issue.
Watch Live Bird Cams
Here’s another way to enjoy the birds: armchair birding!
This lists some of my favorite live bird cams and highlight reels.
Keep warm and enjoy!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛