How Do Birds Stay Warm in The Winter

Snow Robin

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

Snow Wren smFirst, 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:

Not All Winter Birds Survive

Snow Dead Sparrow smSadly, 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.

Further reading:

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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    • says

      Hi David,
      Winterberry is an EXCELLENT food source for birds in winter! I have seen flocks of Cedar Waxwings descend on a bush and clean out all of the berries in a single afternoon. That is an amazing spectacle.

      And thanks for the kind words about the new site design. The child theme I was using before is now more than 5 years old, and no longer supported by the company that created it. This new theme brings us into the future because it is HTML5 compatible, which means it should look good on a computer screen or laptop, and also a tablet or smart phone. Plus I love how this one is less squished together, and the photos look amazing :)
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Faculty Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens Certificate Program in Native Plants and Ecological Horticulture

  1. says

    fresh, clean and minimalist – so the content and the pictures can sing out clearly.
    I’ve changed my tagline to ‘gardening for biodiversity’ in case the next people expect to see zebras walking across the garden.
    Diana Studer recently posted..Tabakrolletjie snake

  2. says

    I fear many birds have frozen to death here. Though not everyone’s favorite, my flock of House Sparrows has it made! They perch in my climbing Prairie Rose to catch the warmth of the sun (it is facing SW), and have taken to nesting and/or roosting in the eaves of our yet unfinished back porch. We put up soffits around the rest of the porch except for that side, since it is the most difficult with the now HUGE Prairie Rose. So, they tuck themselves up in there under the roof. I am going to have to put small bird houses or something up once we finish the roof (out of guilt for taking away their hideaway). They fly a mere few feet to a feeder filled with Sunflower and another with Suet. The Sunflower feeder is tucked into a thickly branching Dogwood and nearby is a heated bird bath with a Blue Spruce on the other side which they also like to perch in. This set up is working very well for them this Winter as the juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, who has been visiting sporadically, is figuring out. Lately I am also seeing Gold Finch and House Finch (I am in a village so we have “neighborhood” birds mostly). I will look into heated dog bowls – thank you – as I would like to put out yet another water source. I think the squirrels and rabbits also visit just for water. I have seen birds tucking into my front porch as well – I think the lights offer a little bit of heat for them, too, though I turn them off overnight.

    • diane berger says

      Wow. I’ve taken notes on all this info. Thank you for sharing. I’ve placed a bird feeder out this winter. Filled several times for sanitation but not once was empty. A bit unusual being in the mt. on wooded acreage. I love the idea of heated dog dish.

  3. Nancy says

    I am thrilled to have 2 Carolina Wrens and 3 Song Sparrows (along with the regulars) surviving the Polar Vortex here in New Hampshire! Four overwintering Bluebirds have also made their presence known lately. I can see the wrens and sparrows emerging from a (purposely created) brush pile each morning, and the heated birdbaths have really earned their keep this winter. Great article!

  4. Karen Lenn says

    I found a Peregrine Falcon under the pine tree in my front yard. Face down, head towards the tree. No marks, legs out behind. So sad!

  5. Pamela says

    I, too planted a few berry bearing bushes but my biggest contribution has been the ever growing brush pile shelter and the heated bird baths. I also provide supplemental seeds about twice/week (it is so expensive anymore!). I’ve also planted sunflowers which are great. I have one BIG question that I rarely see addressed on bird forums: Why do bird lovers provide a “food” element such as SUET? Even if I was not a vegetarian I would think of it as a BAD thing to give to them since it is NOT a natural food they would find in the wild. While I understand people have been programmed to give it to them because of its high fat & energy-giving content but think about it, song birds and other wild birds (other than crows, vultures, and eagles) would NOT NATURALLY include beef lard in their diet. I wish more would stop providing this and substitute peanut butter instead…at least it is from a nut!

    Thank you for this wonderful article!



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