How birds stay warm in winter (a For the Birds rerun)

Here’s a For the Birds column I wrote a few years ago. Seems appropriate with a cold, gusty wind blowing today.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American Tree Sparrow perches near a feeding station during the snowstorm of Feb. 13, 2014.

One of my favorite times to watch birds is when the snow is falling. Not a driving snow with icy temperatures and high winds, but an otherwise rather pleasant day with frozen crystals falling from the sky and covering everything with a fresh coat of white.

I do not shy away from taking walks to look for birds when the snow is actively falling, in fact I thoroughly enjoy walks at such times. But I also enjoy very much watching the activity at the feeders during snowfalls.

As long as the snow is not falling at too fast a rate, the birds will continue coming to feeders. Indeed, during light and moderate snowfalls the birds may be seen at higher-than-usual numbers at backyard feeders.

I will often grab my camera, open a window, pull up a seat and capture images of the hungry birds as snow falls and collects around them. I could do that for hours. Heating bills be damned. The usual suspects such as Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches are typically seen in high numbers during snowfalls. It’s also a great time to see birds such as Carolina Wrens and Dark-eyed Juncos.

But what about when it’s a heavy snowfall? I mean, right in the middle of the worst of it? Birds are scarce then. Wouldn’t you be, too?

Where are the birds then? Most humans are holed up at home or work or some other place of shelter. Birds do pretty much the same thing. Whether their shelter is an evergreen bough, a patch of thick brush, a bird house, an old nest hole in a tree, or even under the snow, birds do their best to stay out of the harsh weather. 

Birds don’t have the luxury of a thermostat to crank up during these times. They don’t need artificial sources of heat, however. They have several natural defenses against the cold. One such defense is to puff up their feathers to trap warm air within their down feathers. This keeps the cold air away from their bodies. It’s the same principle as us putting on a jacket (especially a down-filled one.)

Depending on the species, they may also huddle together for warmth, often holing up together in a birdhouse. That’s why it’s important to keep your birdhouses up all year and to clean them out after the nesting season. Some birds, such as grouse, will even use the snow to their advantage by burying themselves into the snow for shelter. Those birds are insulated by the snow and out of the elements. The danger with that strategy is sometimes snow will turn to ice and a hard surface may form on the top of the snow.

Birds also know beforehand when a storm is coming. Sensing a change in air pressure, the birds build up their fat reserves to use as energy during the storm. That, obviously, makes the time leading up to harsh weather a good time for us to watch feeders, as well. Food, eaten beforehand, is important to birds’ survival of storms.

So make sure your feeders are well stocked this winter and offer a variety of foods in different feeders. I’m sure more snow is coming before too long. 

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Pine siskin vs. American goldfinch video

Here is a video I put together on the current pine siskin (fall 2018) irruption. Also a description on how to tell siskins and goldfinches apart. Subscribe to my YouTube channel by clicking here.

More and more siskins

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

It started out as two yesterday morning. Now there are more than 20 pine siskins at my backyard feeding station in Danbury, Conn. That’s often the way it goes with these winter finches: The visits start with a few birds and they multiply and eat the host out of house and home. Not that I’m complaining …

Every perch on the hopper is filled and the rest are on a nearby hopper feeder or on the ground. They are eating Nyjer and sunflower seeds. 

Siskin irruption hits home — finally

Photo by Chris Bosak A pine siskin eats Nyjer seeds at a feeder in Danbury, Conn., fall 2018.

After reading about pine siskins being seen throughout New England for several weeks, I woke up this morning to three of them at my feeding station. Pine siskins are one of the winter finches that irrupt from the north into New England and points south in sporadic winters. (Related post may be found here.)

Pine Siskins are often confused with goldfinches because they look fairly similar and prefer Nyjer (or thistle) seeds. Siskins are a bit larger, more sleek, more streaked and have a longer, pointed bill. The heavy streaking, especially on the sides, and yellow wing and tail markings are the best clues to differentiate the species. The male siskins have more prominent yellow markings. 

So today I celebrate that the siskins have arrived. The birds, however, have a very healthy appetite and Nyjer seed is not cheap, so we’ll see how I feel if their numbers multiply. I’m sure I’ll continue to be inspired by their presence. After all, it’s been about 10 years since I was a part of one of their irruptions. I think I can splurge once a decade on them. 

Here is a photo of them with goldfinches. Note the differences in plumage. The goldfinch is on the lower right. 

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

Goldfinches galore

Photo by Chris Bosak
An American goldfinch perches on a chain that holds birdfeeders during a November 2018 snow storm in Danbury, Connecticut.

The snow this week brought not only the unexpected visitors, such as fox sparrows, but also the regular visitors such as chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, doves, juncos, and woodpeckers. It also brought goldfinches, which was to be expected, but what was surprising was the number of goldfinches. Every perch on my thistle tube feeder was filled and other goldfinches either waited patiently nearby or “settled” for sunflower seeds at other feeders. There were even goldfinches on the ground among the many juncos.

I hope to post a video of the goldfinches later today. Let’s see if time and my technical knowledge of video programs permit … 

Photo by Chris Bosak
American goldfinches eat Nyjer seed from a tube feeder in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 2018.

More fox sparrow/snow photos

Photo by Chris Bosak A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.
As an addendum to my last post, here are some more photos of the fox sparrows that are visiting my yard today following a snow and ice storm.  Later today or tomorrow, I’ll add some photos of the goldfinches that are visiting today. There are lots of them. 
Photo by Chris Bosak A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A fox sparrow and junco eat sunflower seeds following an ice storm in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A fox sparrow perches on the snow in Danbury, Conn., Nov. 16, 2018.