Birds of a Feather Do Stick Together!
Have you ever wondered how our local birds survive this winter’s bitter cold temperatures? Birds are warm-blooded (like humans), so 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 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, and each 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 also be controlled separately from the rest of the bird’s body by constricting blood flow to these extremities.
Even with all of the tricks birds have under their wing, sometimes severe winters do prove to be too much. Birds can use a helping hand from us, and even some of the simplest 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.
- Offer food to the birds during winter. 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 the feeders full. After a long night, the calories at your feeders may be what keeps a cold and energy-depleted bird alive.
- 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 the winter, putting a homemade or store bought shelter (as simple as a wooden box with a hole in it) can provide a warm alternative to being directly out in the elements.
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 own enjoyment of when you look through your windows. To get ideas to create your very own bird and wildlife viewing area, visit the Seasongood Nature Center in Woodland Mound, where you can observe many animals feeding, from above or at their level.
Amy Smith, Hub Naturalist