Baby it’s cold outside! As you sit in your cozy kitchen enjoying the hot beverage of your choice, our feathered friends are keeping warm in their own way too. Birds’ feathers provide outstanding insulation, as they are aligned to provide tiny air pockets that can trap body heat and keep it close. The outermost layer of feathers is coated with a waterproofing oil produced by a gland that preening will spread to their feathers. Some birds even grow an extra layer of feathers as part of their fall molt. In the fall, while food is plentiful, birds can build up an insulating layer of body fat which can also serve as fuel in the coldest temperatures when they can use it for shivering which increases body temperatures. Birds will also turn their backs to the sun to take advantage of solar radiation on sunny days. Communal roosting will also help as the birds can share body heat in an enclosed space.
Even with these behavioral and physiological adaptations, winter is not an easy time for birds. There are things that we can do to help them with food, water and shelter. Consider “setting a table” for birds with quality seeds, suet, and nuts that give birds lots of calories to fuel their behavioral adaptations. Keep your feeders stocked, particularly as bad weather approaches and in the mornings so birds have food when it’s most needed. Ideally, there are native plants in your yard that have seeds they love, such as coneflowers, black-eyed susan, and native fruit bearing shrubs like winterberry holly. It may be too late for this season, but it’s best to skip the fall clean-up and leave the seed heads for birds to enjoy and the stalks for overwintering insects that the birds will also eat.
As we know from this past summer’s mysterious avian disease, keeping your feeders and feeding area clean is really important to prevent disease spread so clean your feeders with a good scrub followed by a 15-minute soak in a 50% vinegar solution or a 10% bleach solution. Rinse well and let dry completely before you refill. Clean up under your feeders and dispose of uneaten seed rather than discarding it on the ground to avoid pests and mold.
Birds need liquid water as well. While they may be able to consume a certain amount of snow, melting it requires precious calories that are put to better use, so install a heated birdbath or add an immersible heater to your existing bird bath.
Shelter from the wind and precipitation is important too. A simple brush pile is a great help to birds and a good second life for your Christmas tree. Consider planting native evergreens that can provide both shelter and food and installing a roosting box is also an option.
As we all dream of spring and our gardens, please consider adding more native plants to your landscape!
Plants for Birds (audubon.org)
Plants for Birds (Audubon Pennsylvania)
Garden for Wildlife (nwf.org)