Birds have many built-in strategies for surviving the cold days of winter. And there are also many things we can do in our wildlife gardens to help winter birds.
It’s 15 degrees outside. The Polar Vortex has gripped the country in frigid temperatures from New England to some unexpected places this year. Texas, Georgia, and even Florida have experienced record low temperatures and snow.
So how do the winter birds stay warm?
Bird feathers are remarkable for their insulating properties (think of that nice warm down jacket you wear when you venture outside in this extreme cold:
Bird adaptations are pretty remarkable, in my opinion. Feathers, of course, provide insulation. In fact, many birds undergo a fall molt to replace their feathers with a much denser set to prepare for the upcoming winter cold. When temperatures drop severely, birds will fluff up their feathers to help them create pockets of warm air against their bodies as an additional layer of insulation. Meredith O’Reilly
Many birds migrate to more southern and warmer climates, not as much because of the cold, but their food supply is much more available during the winter months. There are no insects hanging around my Pennsylvania wildlife garden, so many songbirds have flown to places where more food is available.
Food for Winter Birds
First, winter birds need quick energy food to keep their engines running. It takes a huge amount of energy to keep warm during winter. While bird feeders with sunflower seeds or suet can provide a quick and easy shot of energy, you can also “plant a bird feeder” by adding lots of seed-bearing perennials and berrying shrubs to your wildlife garden.
Please keep in mind that bread is NOT a good source of food for winter birds, despite many “how-to” articles around the web teaching you to make treats for birds from stale bread and bagels. It’s junk food for birds, and provides little of the essential nutrition, lipids, and fats that birds require to survive the winter.
Second, birds need access to clean water even in winter when everything is frozen. There are several strategies for providing water for winter birds, but I use a heated dog bowl.
Shelter for Winter Birds
Birds need shelter at all times of the year, but especially during winter so that they have a warm, dry place to get out of winter cold and wind.
Shelter for winter birds in your wildlife garden can include:
- Brush, rock and wood piles provide nooks and crannies for winter birds to hide in.
- Dead trees or snags provide places for owls and woodpeckers to create nesting cavities, and other winter birds will use old nesting holes to find shelter from wind and cold
- Dense native shrubs provide temporary shelter from the wind for winter birds to stay warm and dry.
- Roosting baskets provide warm shelter for Carolina Wrens and other small winter birds
Not All Winter Birds Survive
Sadly, some winter birds do not survive the cold. Earlier this week I noticed one of my Plott Hounds trying to get to something on the other side of the garden fence. And we discovered this frozen Song Sparrow lying on top of the snow.
I saw no signs of attack by a hawk or even by a feral cat (please keep your cats inside! It’s healthier for them, and keeps birds safe). There were no windows nearby where this bird could have stunned itself by flying into it. It sadly looks like it simply froze to death. Poor little guy
How are the winter birds surviving this extreme cold in your wildlife garden? Please scroll down and leave a comment about the birds you’re seeing in your neck of the woods.
- The Ultimate Guide to Birdscaping Your Garden
- How to Create Rest Stops for Migratory Birds in your Wildlife Garden
- Winter Wildlife Garden FAQ
- How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- How Birds Cope With Cold in Winter, Audubon Magazine
- All Tucked Away for the Night, Zen Bird Feeder
- Winter Food for Birds
Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.
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