Bird Watcher's General Store

Toughing Out in the Deep Freeze - 12/20/02


Dear Bird Folks:

Sitting here on this stormy night, by my cozy fire, makes me wonder how birds survive this time of year. What do birds do when the temperature and wind chill fall below zero?

-Gabriel, Truro

They Freeze Gabriel,

That's what birds do when it gets too cold. Perhaps they don't freeze totally, but it can be close. Although you would never know it by their cheery outward behavior, winter is a very tough time for birds. When you think about it, the only thing that stands between a bird and the icy outside temperature is a ridiculously thin layer of feathers. If you took every feather off a chickadee and weighed them, the scale wouldn't even move. A chickadee's total outer layer of protection weighs practically zero. I think the only thing that weighs less is the amount of common sense found in a federal tax form.

When it comes to dealing with winter, birds have two choices, head south or stay here and tough it out. After the weather that we have had the last few weeks, heading south seems like a much better decision.

But migration is not always the best choice. Remember, birds don't all pile into the back of a motor home and speed their way down I-95, counting the "South of the Border" signs as they go. A trip south for birds is filled with all kinds of scary adventures. Birds have to deal with storms that blow them off course and cell towers that they can never seem to avoid. Plus, finding food in a habitat that is constantly disappearing is uncertain at best. Many birds that leave in the fall never make it back to see their breeding grounds again.

Yet, as we all know, making it through a New England winter is no piece of cake either. Besides the extreme cold, often times food sources are covered with snow and ice. The winter days are shorter, so there is less time for the birds to find food. Also, the nights are longer and after dark is the hardest time for birds. With no food to provide energy and no sun to supply warmth, night for a bird can be a very long time, almost as long as an afternoon of watching golf on TV.

Birds use every trick that they know to survive the night. Just like us, birds shiver to keep warm. They fluff out their feathers to trap more warm air. Some birds hunker down in birdhouses or woodpecker holes, with other birds, sharing what little body heat they give off. Some birds will even bury themselves in snow. Snow actually insulates them from the often colder air temperature. A chickadee can lower its own body temperature from 108 to 90 degrees in order to save energy during the night.

Birds also have minimal blood flow to their feet. A bird's body temperature may be over 100 degrees while their feet are just above freezing, which is a complaint that I too have heard more than once. If somehow the fluffing and the shivering work and the bird is able to make it through the night, it is rewarded by having to do it all over again the next night.

Now don't be fretting too much over this, it sounds worse than it is. Even though hard winter weather can push birds' survival skills to the edge, they are designed to be pushed to the edge. Most of the time a bird will return from the edge ready to take on the next challenge.

Enjoy your cozy fire Gabriel, the birds can take care of themselves. But if you want to make yourself feel better and do something for them, make up a plate of cookies and a Thermos of hot chocolate and leave it with me. I'll make sure that they get it.

Artwork by Catherine Clark




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