In harsh winter climates, nobody can deny the necessity of being bundled from head to toe with jackets, hats, shoes, and other clothing. In terms of birds, many of them head to warmer climates to overwinter. However, some wild birds stay and endure the tremendous cold.
So, How Do Birds Survive in the Winter? Birds create air pockets by fluffing their feathers out to retain heat in their body. They also coat their feathers with the oil produced from uropygial glands to protect themselves from getting wet in cold winter. Some birds flock together in trees or shrubs at night to exchange body heat. Other small birds, like hummingbirds and chickadees, enter into torpor mode to lower their body temperature.
On top of that, birds use several useful methods to survive in the winter. In this article, we’re going to talk about those adaptation techniques below. We’ll also show you how you can help overwintering birds with minimal effort. So, let’s get started!
How Do Birds Adapt to Winter Weather?
Although all birds have a body temperature of around 105°F (40°C)–higher than humans, they use many winter adaptation techniques to keep themselves warm in harsh winter weather. Here are some of the useful techniques that birds often follow to survive in the winter.
In cold winter weather, birds shiver to increase their metabolic rate, and therefore, generate more body temperatures to stay warm for a short period. Black-capped chickadees, for example, shiver by activating opposing muscle groups to cope with harsh winter climates.
02. Fluffing Feathers:
When it comes to surviving in the winter, birds create air pockets around their bodies by fluffing their feathers to get remarkable insulation against the cold. Besides, many birds grow some extra downy feathers before winter to give themselves thicker protection in cold climates.
All birds have oil-producing glands, also known as uropygial glands or preen glands, near the base of their tails. They coat their feathers with special oil to make them waterproof. This helps birds stay dry and warm in wet winter weather.
04. Roosting and Cuddling:
Some small birds, such as bluebirds, tree swallows, titmice, chickadees, and larger birds, like ring-billed gulls and American crows, flock together in shrubs and trees at night to share body temperatures. However, cavity nesters, including nuthatches, sparrows, and downy woodpeckers, use dense foliage, tree cavities, or empty birdhouses for cuddling to stay warm.
05. Tucking Bills and Feet:
In harsh winter weather, many birds, such as ducks, pelicans, geese, swans, and gulls, conserve their body temperatures, standing on one leg or covering both legs with their feathers to stay warm. Birds, like Canada geese, tuck their bills into the shoulder feathers to breathe warm air into their body.
06. Gaining Extra Fat:
Some small birds, like finches and chickadees, increase more than 10 percent of body weight in the late summer or fall to survive the harsh winter climates. They gain fat so that it can serve as both energy source and insulation in colder weather. To do this, the birds spend most of the daytime to search for fatty food sources.
Many overwintering birds take heat from the sun on winter days. They expose their backs to the sun, raising their feathers as much as possible and spreading their wings and tail to heat their body and feathers. This way, they cope with the unpleasant winter weather.
08. Entering Torpor:
To conserve energy during cold nights, many animals go into hibernation, but some birds enter torpor. Torpor is a state of mini-hibernation that helps reduce birds’ metabolic rate, body temperature, and the requirement many calories to survive in winter. Winter hummingbirds, swifts, and chickadees can lower their body temperatures up to 60°F when they’re in torpor.
09. Storing Food for Winter:
Since natural food sources are not so abundant in winter, many birds store enough food before winter. For example, Black-capped Chickadees store many foods in hundreds of spots so that they can find them later. Besides, birds change their dietary preference to consume higher energy foods, such as black oil sunflower seed and suet, to keep their body warm on cold winter nights.
How Can You Help Birds Survive the Winter?
Now that you know how birds survive when winter strikes, you may want to help them in the following winter. Luckily, we’ve come out with a few ideas you can try with your beloved ones to boost your backyard friends when the old man winter rolls around.
- Offer Good Food: Once you decide to help non-migratory birds in cold winter, you can offer foods high in fat and calories, such as black oil sunflower seed, Nyjer (thistle seed), suet, nuts, peanut butter, and scraps. These will help those birds generate plenty of body heat for the long winter months.
- Keep Your Feeders Full: As you know, insects and plants are scarce in winter. So, you should keep your feeders full of nutritious food, like sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts, suet, and mealworms, throughout the winter, so that cold night birds get quick access to food to replenish their calories.
- Provide Water to Drink: During cold winters, birds need water to survive, but it often gets frozen. Although birds can melt ice to drink water, they will use many calories needed to maintain body temperatures. Instead, you can offer liquid water to the birds to drink throughout the winter season.
- Arrange a Heated Birdbath: You can provide a shallow dish of warm water to the birds so that they can have a quick bath. To prevent freezing, you should bring the dish back in the house at night to refill with another batch of hot water for the next morning. If you don’t monitor the water daily, consider installing a heated birdbath that won’t let the water freeze.
- Give Shelter: In the coldest winter, you can set birdhouses or a roost box in your backyard to provide non-migratory birds not only shelter but also protection from predators. Make sure you position the shelter safely to protect it from the wind. You can also plant evergreen trees and shrubs to give the required shelters to birds during the coldest months.
Handy Hint: To read more about birds, visit our other article about How To Get Rid Of Woodpeckers Pecking Your House? [Click Here]
Some Birds That Survive in the Winter
Even though most birds head to the warmer northern regions, especially the tropics, to overwinter, some of them stay in colder climates to face the dead of winter. Now, we’re going to show you some overwintering birds below.
- Golden-Crowned Kinglets: Although these birds weigh only 6 grams (0.2 ounces), they can survive harsh winter weather. During cold climates, people even see these birds in Alaska and Nova Scotia, where short days and heavy snow are common affairs.
- Black-Capped Chickadees: To survive the coldest winter nights, Black-capped Chickadees have three unique features: activeness, insulation, and good memory. These birds can maintain their body temperatures well in 0 degrees due to their half-inch coat of feathers.
- Ruffed Grouse: Once winter season starts in North America, Ruffed Grouse move to forests to live. During mid-winter, these birds roost in the dense needles of conifers to survive the coldest nights. With the help of snow, they create a tunnel into the roost to protect themselves from predators save calories for staying warm.
- Buffleheads: In the early winter, Buffleheads shift to the boreal forest and some coaster areas where they usually breed on small ponds and lakes. These birds often return to the same area where they overwintered in the previous year.
- Robins and Berries: Robins and Berries are birds that can be found in many places in winter. These birds always search for foods throughout the winter season. For example, when a flock of Robins finds a fruiting shrub, it gives red berries a signal that there is an excellent food source out there.
Top 5 Worst Winter Weather Cities in the USA
You may know that Alaska is the coldest state in the United States. When it comes to cities, the temperature might vary from year to year. We have a list of the top 5 coldest cities in the USA according to the data of the National Weather Service in 2019-20. So, let’s count them down.
#01. Barrow, Alaska: Borrow, located in the very northern part of Alaska, was the coldest city in the United States in 2019-20. Although the average low temperature of Borrow was -14°F (-25.5°C)–two degrees higher than that of Fairbanks, the average high temperature of Borrow was just -8°F (-22.2°C) in January 2020, making it the coldest city in the USA.
#02. Fairbanks, Alaska: Fairbanks is the northernmost city in Alaska, the second coldest city in the United States in 2019-20. The average low temperature of Fairbanks was -16°F (-26.6°C). However, the average high temperature of the state in January 2020 was only -7°F (-21.6°C).
#03. International Falls, Minnesota: When it comes to the coldest cities in the USA, International Falls in Minnesota secured 3rd place in 2019-20. Although the state witnessed some cold nights (-46°F) in late January, it was a reasonably balanced winter there. The average low temperature of International Falls was just 11°F (-11.6°C) in January 2020.
#04. Grand Forks, North Dakota: Grand Forks is situated in North Dakota, around 150 kilometers north of Fargo. The state was the 4th coldest city in the United States in 2019-20. The average low temperature of Grand Forks was -8°F (-22.2°C), but the average high temperature of the state was 12°F (-11.1°C). All in all, the average winter temperature of the state was only 2°F (-16.6°C).
#05. Fargo, North Dakota: Forgo secured the 5th position on the list of the coldest cities in the USA last year. The average low temperature of Fargo was -2°F (-18.8°C), but the average high temperature of the state was 15°F (-9.4°C). Finally, the average winter temperature of the state was just 6°F (-14.4°C).
The report of the National Weather Service of the USA has also included some other cities on the list. If you’re willing to go on any winter vacations, you should check the weather of these cities before making any decision.
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Chicago, Illinois
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Detroit, Michigan
- Indianapolis, IN and Columbus, OH
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Myths and Facts about Some Winter Birds
There are many myths about birds in terms of their survival in the winter. In this section, we’re going to talk about a few of the myths we’ve heard and their facts to clarify your confusion.
#Myth – 01: When the winter temperature is far below zero, overwintering birds will freeze and die.
#Fact: Birds can survive cold temperatures really well by using several techniques. For example, overwintering birds gain fat before winter to keep themselves warm on coldest winter nights. These birds also create an air pocket by fluffing their feathers to trap heat so that they can conserve many calories. Most importantly, they roost in many suitable places, including evergreen trees, shrubs, birdhouses, grass thickets, or tree cavities.
#Myth – 02: If you’re on vacation during the winter months, the birds that depend on your feeder food will starve and die.
#Fact: Scientists have already proven it as a myth. They show that Black-capped chickadees eat 75% of their daily winter food in the wild and 25% from feeders. Therefore, if you cannot offer birds some feeder food, they won’t starve and die.
#Myth – 03: If you offer warm water to birds to have a bath during winter, they will freeze to death due to wet feathers.
#Fact: As you know, birds usually have oil-producing glands near their tails. They coat their feathers with the produced oil to make them waterproof. That’s why bird feathers won’t get wet when they’re having a bath during winter.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. How do birds survive in extreme cold?
Answer: Birds trap air in their feathers to survive in extreme cold. They also make a toasty layer of warmth around themselves to cope with the coldest climates. Besides, some birds enter into torpor mode to lower their body temperatures around 60°F.
2. How do birds keep warm in the winter?
Answer: Birds usually expose their backs to the sun to keep themselves warm on winter days. They also gain extra fat before winter so that the fat can keep them warm on harsh winter nights.
3. Where do birds sleep in the winter?
Answer: To sleep or cuddle on cold winter nights, birds always search for protected areas, such as birdhouses, roost boxes, evergreen trees, shrubs, and most importantly, the places that windbreaks. Not only do these places work as shelters, but they can also protect birds from predators.
4. How do Cardinals survive the winter?
Answer: When it comes to winter survival, Cardinals are birds that flock together to share warmth to increase their body heat. They also tuck their feet and head to adapt winter temperatures. Sometimes, small Cardinals make themselves like a little round beach ball to reduce their body temperatures.
Now that you know how birds survive in the winter, you can help them as much as you want, providing them with good food, shelter, and other necessities. However, birds can take of themselves pretty well in the dead of winter.
Although birds know what to do in winter, your help makes their survival more successful in chilly winter. Have you ever helped any overwintering bird? If your answer is yes, you can let us know your experience below in the comment section.