For the Birds: Winter strategies for birds

Photo by Chris Bosak A northern mockingbird perches on a branch following a snowfall in New England, January 2022.

Single-digit temperatures and heavy snow always make me think of the birds that tough out New England winters.

There are many birds that, instead of taking a risky migration journey, opt to stay here and take their chances with the cold. We see these birds at our feeders and in our woods every day. Whether a bird migrates or stays put, there are inherent risks and rewards.

Birds that migrate face an arduous journey fraught with obstacles, including but certainly not limited to tall buildings, wind turbines, cell towers, dangerous weather, exhaustion and destruction of their wintering grounds. Once they get to their destination, however, they are rewarded with abundant food and warm temperatures. Of course, they have to make the trip all over again in the spring.

Birds that remain in New England do not face the dangers of migratory flights, but cold temperatures and food scarcity are the trade-offs. These birds have developed a variety of strategies to survive the frigid temperatures.

Many birds will puff out their feathers to trap warm air close to their bodies. Birds that do this can look up to twice their normal size. Birds also shiver just as we do when we’re cold. Shivering takes energy, so it’s important that these birds find plenty to eat during the day. Many species also huddle together to stay warm, just like family units used to do in some cultures. Ducks, geese and swans use countercurrent heat exchange to keep their bodies warmer than their feet, which are protected by scales.

Shelter is very important for birds in the winter. That’s why it’s important to clean out birdhouses after the breeding season and keep them up throughout the winter. Several birds may use the house at night. Other birds will nestle among the thick branches of an evergreen.

Woodpeckers have been known to excavate holes in dead trees for their winter digs. Grouse sometimes burrow in the snow for warmth. That can be dicey when a layer of ice forms on top of the snow.

Crows form massive flocks and roost. They gather at dusk and fly by the hundreds or thousands to a roost, often near a city. It is quite a spectacle. This community-mindedness helps keep predators away, or at least offers a good warning system should a predator appear, and aids in finding food.

Finding food is a top priority for birds that overwinter in New England. It requires a lot of energy to survive in brutally cold conditions. Even though natural food sources may seem scarce, songbirds that visit feeders still get most of their food “in the wild.” That’s not to diminish the importance of feeding birds in the winter, but those seed and suet freebies are a supplement to their natural diet.

It’s funny how humans mirror the bird world when it comes to winter. Many people, especially retirees, head south for the winter and come back when New England is nice and toasty again. Most of us, however, stick out the New England winter and bear with the cold. Many of us have adapted to enjoy the winter and actually look forward to snow. Of course, we have warm houses waiting for us when we’re done. Birds should be so lucky.

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