Birds using their ways to deal with winter

"A winter wonderland!" Splinter exclaimed as the snow piled higher and higher covering everything in view. And indeed it was. The spell was broken too soon when real life insisted that we pay attention to something besides the beauty of the fallen snow. First order of business was to create a path through the thick blanket of white for the pups to do their "business." We wouldn't want to lose them in the deep snow.

How do the birds fare with so much snow? How do they manage to survive the frigid temperatures of wintertime — especially when several feet of snow cover the ground — and the birdfeeders? We bring our pets inside when it gets this cold so they won't freeze to death. Why don't the birds freeze to death?


Sometimes they do. But in reality they are more resistant to the cold than mammals are because Mother Nature has equipped them with an amazingly efficient internal cooling and heating system. They have features that help them combat the elements and withstand a fairly wide range of body temperatures.

Perhaps you've observed some of your favorite songbirds looking very fat on a chilly day — almost as though they have donned a warm winter coat. Birds fluff out their feathers to help them keep warm, and it makes them look plump.

Mother Nature has provided some specialized options to help birds manage the big chill, and fluffing their feathers is one. Feathers play a critical role in regulating body temperatures. Tiny muscles in the skin enable birds to fluff out their contour feathers to trap an insulating layer of air between their feathers and their skin that helps them maintain their body heat — like wearing a down jacket.

Would it surprise you to know that most birds have at least 25 percent more feathers in the wintertime? The extra feathers are acquired during the fall molt.

In heat of summertime, the opposite occurs. Birds can compress their feathers to keep the hot air away from their skin — like natural air conditioning.

Have you ever seen a bird shivering? When birds are very cold, they can quickly turn food into heat by shivering. However, the shivering causes them to burn a lot of extra energy — energy that they must soon replace by consuming more food. If they don't replenish the energy they are burning, they will succumb to the cold and die.

Many small birds must eat much more food during the winter than in warmer months in order to keep their metabolism high. They must eat energy-rich foods including seeds, insects, fruit, and suet. Metabolism effects the production of heat and energy.

During the spring and summer, most birds are intent upon defending nesting territories. When winter comes, these behaviors change as many species band together in flocks that roam about together in search of an abundant food source.

In an article on the Audubon website (, Kenn Kaufmann comments on the fact that birds seem to intuitively seek the warmest areas possible — including hedges, nesting cavities, and in and under large evergreen trees.

"I don't know to what extent the birds actively pause and say, 'it feels a couple of degrees warmer here,'" says Audubon's field editor Kenn Kaufman, "but whether it's instinctive or a conscious choice, they are definitely making moves to be in sheltered spots."

I'm thinking that the brush pile Splinter made after the holidays with our Christmas tree might be providing a cozy shelter for the birds and perhaps some other wildlings, too.

It's a fact that many birds are able to survive the coldest days of winter because of the seed and suet that people like us put out for them. Sometimes, our effort to feed and fortify our feathered friends makes the difference between life and death. So keep your feeders filled, and maybe you'll be blessed with visits from a colorful array of hungry, grateful birds.

Stay warm and enjoy the snow. Spring is only 49 days away!