Birds of a Feather Do Stick Together

All, Nature Notes
A red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rests against a tree on a sunny February day.
A red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rests against a tree, likely about to forage for its next winter meal.

Have you been wondering how our local birds can survive the bitter cold temperatures this winter? Birds are warm blooded, just like humans, meaning they can produce their own body heat. They take it a step further though. Birds have a higher metabolic rate than us, allowing them to stay at a higher temperature (around 105 degrees Fahrenheit on average) during the day. Conversely, at night, birds can go into torpor, which is a lowered body temperature and metabolic rate. This allows them to conserve their fat reserves and energy during a time when food may be scarce.

Feathers serve as excellent insulators for each individual. On a blustery evening, birds of a feather will stick together; each of them has a job to do. They create warmth for their friends by poofing out their feathers to allow air to collect beneath. Also, they may participate in a group shiver to generate heat. Although shivering will raise their metabolic rate and temperature, causing more calories to be depleted, it may be what allows them to live into the next day. Bird legs and feet temperatures can be controlled separately from the rest of the bird’s body by constricting blood flow to these extremities.

A female and male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) poof their feathers out to keep warm during a snowfall.
A male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) poofs out his feathers to keep warm during winter in Winton Woods.

Even with all of the tricks birds have under their wing, sometimes severe winters do prove to be too much. They can use a helping hand and even simple things can save a bird’s life. If you would like to help our feathered friends, here are some things you can do:

  • Create a wildlife garden by planting native shrubs and plants. This will provide cover, shelter and food. In the fall, many birds will probably flock to this garden to gorge themselves in order to build up their fat reserves for the winter ahead.
  • During winter, offer food to birds. Varying the offerings will allow you to enjoy a variety of bird types. Foods high in calories or fat, such as suet, may be a preferred menu item in extreme cold. You will find that woodpeckers and even chickadees and wrens will spend much time feeding from a suet cake.
  • Keep feeders full. After a long night, the calories at your feeders may be what keeps a cold and energy-depleted bird alive!
A hollowed out orange peel hangs from a tree amidst a snowy backdrop.
Hollowed out orange peels make easy (and biodegradable!) bird feeders.
  • Provide a water source. During desperate times, birds can eat snow to hydrate; however, this greatly lowers their body temperature.
  • If you do not have shrubs that are serving as shelter during winter, putting a homemade or store-bought shelter (as simple as a wooden box with a hole in it) outside can provide a warm alternative to being directly out in the elements.
A snow covered bird bath still has water flowing in the middle of winter thanks to a bird bath heater.
A bird bath heater keeps water from freezing (Photo courtesy of Lorianne DiSabato on Flickr).

Doing even just one or a few of the above for the birds in your life can really make a difference, not only in the bird’s chances of survival, but in your enjoyment of time spent looking out the window. To get ideas to create your very own bird and wildlife viewing area, visit Sharon Centre in Sharon Woods, where you can observe many animals feeding and sheltering from the elements.


Amy Swigart
Guest Experiences Manager, Sharon Woods