How Birds Survive the Cold: Feathers + Food = Warmth

This article by Charles Eldermire in All About Birds tells of the strategies used by birds to cope with cold weather.

For the winter season we might well follow the example of the birds:  Get some friends to hang out with, and eat as much nourishing food as possible!  Both strategies are ways we can have fun during the season of cold weather.

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.

2. Eat As Much As Possible

Blue jays fill up on needed calories. Photo by Kathleen via BirdShare.

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.

3. When You Can’t Eat More, Get Puffy And Rest

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

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.

4. Stay Out Of The Wind

Downey Woodpecker, wind ruffling its feathers. Photo by Barbara Lynne via BirdShare.

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.


5. Roost In A Cavity

An Eastern Screech-Owl roosting in a tree cavity. Photo by byavicentric via BirdShare.

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.

This article by Charles Eldermire was reblogged from All About Birds.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer writer of neighborhood history in Seattle.
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