How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?

February 1, 2013
Hanging out with other birds, like the Tree Swallows here, helps protect individuals from predators and also helps conserve warmth. Photo by Keith WIlliams via Birdshare. Hanging out with other birds, like the Tree Swallows here, helps protect individuals from predators and also helps conserve warmth. Photo by Keith WIlliams via Birdshare.
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We put this question to Bird Cams project leader Charles Eldermire, who provided a handy 5-step survival guide for birds trying to stay alive in the bitter cold (see his full answer on our blog).

1. They hang out with other birds

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! Other birds also are also good at letting you know where the primo food is.

2. They eat as much as possible

Park 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 they can’t eat more, they can get puffy and rest

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. They stay out of the wind

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. They roost in cavities

Birds will never find a warmer spot to sleep than in their own down feathers, nestled in a nook small enough that they 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.

And in addition to this 5-step list, there’s one other very common way that birds survive the cold of winter: they migrate.

Comments

  • Salim Aljayousi

    they just hide inside their coat of feather they become like a ball, i have bird in the balcony that survived 7 winters in the cage alone, no flocks, alone

  • YTQ

    That poor bird! Alone, no other birds for company. How cruel. I hope the bird is now dead so it can’t be tortured anymore.

  • Mimi

    I’ve watched several birds go into the bird boxes.. to the feeders… back to the bird boxes…

  • Mimi

    Just curious, why would you keep a bird, outside during the winter, alone? Are you in a warm climate? Seems kind of cruel.

  • JordanLanham

    Why would you do this to a bird? Sounds very cruel.

  • Nancy Nolan

    I hope you live in Florida. You could at least bring it in on cold nights. A bird without companionship is the saddest and cruelest thing!

  • Michelle McFarland

    What about roosting boxes?

  • Mad Boot of the Ween

    Salim started with 30 birds and after seven winters only one has survived.

  • Mimi

    Yeah, sure

  • An-Ole-Di-Hard

    The other evening as I brought our Shepherd in for the night I startled some Sparrows inside his doghouse. From the window I watched them return. In our Pigeon Shed Sparrows often fly out when we open the door. Of course there’s always food out for the Crows, Ravines, Blackbirds, Sparrows and Magpies. Whoever comes first gets the fruit & warm water. LOL It’s fun watching them.

  • Wrabble

    That would fit into category 5 they roost in cavities.

  • An-Ole-Di-Hard

    I don’t think Salim meant it the way it’s written. I hope not anyway. God put thought into each creature He made. Each species so different from the next. He told man to care for the earth and all living things upon it. This didn’t include cruelty and abuse. He said if we lack wisdom look to the animals. They have natural instincts.

  • Mick

    I watched as a Downey Woodpecker held a dry twig with its foot while rubbing it against
    a second dry twig held in its beak…never did get it to light though. Well at least he tried. He finally flew off and checked into a motel.

  • Cletus B Neckbeard

    … where it was later seen getting it on with a Muffed Silkie…

  • Mick

    I didn’t want to mention that ‘ cause his mate has been calling all the bird feeders looking for him…He’s a “dirty bird.”

  • LOL!!!

  • Mick

    😊

  • joycelgr

    Saw thousands and thousands of black birds in the air this morning and they all landed on 2 or 3 big trees before flying off..beautiful