How Birds Stay Warm in the Winter

As the colder weather approaches, birds of all shapes and sizes have to start adapting to the drop in temperature. Extra winter feathers, shivering, and roosting, among other adaptions, are just a few of the ways they are able to keep cozy throughout the winter months.

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Extra feathers

In preparation for winter, many birds grow extra feathers as part of a late fall molt. These extra feathers provide birds with the perfect insulation to stay warm. Additionally, birds have a unique adaptation called the uropygial gland. This special gland releases oil that coats their feathers, ultimately making them waterproof and providing even more insulation. Sometimes you’ll see a bird “fluffing” its feathers. When this happens, they are creating air pockets that serve as a heat source.

Shivering

Similar to people, birds shiver as well. Due to birds’ high metabolic rate, they have to burn a large amount of energy just to stay warm. When they shiver, their metabolic rate goes up and so does their body heat. Shivers are just a short-term, inefficient solution as it does require the burning of lots of calories.

Tucking their feet and bills 

Have you ever walked past a group of one-legged geese and wondered what they are doing? Well, it’s a simple action to keep in body heat. Waterfowl, in particular, circulate blood through their feet using countercurrent heat exchange. Warm blood flows to their feet and back into the body. As the veins take in warm blood, the artery’s internal temperature decreases. Thus, the temperature in their feet adapts to the temperature outside and reduces heat overall. Since there is a small temperature difference between the ice and their feet, this process becomes efficient for waterfowl as they lose minimal body heat to the ice. You can typically see birds lifting one leg into their feathers during the winter months. Another thing this bird does to stay warm is tucking its bill underneath its feathers. By doing this, they draw warm air in.

Roosting

During the winter months, a bird party comes in handy. Cuddling is the perfect way to generate body heat, using minimal energy. Cavity nesters, such as nuthatches, will huddle in tree cavities and generate body warmth inside. Tree cavities are ideal as they protect the birds from the cold weather as well as any predators that might be around. 

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What can you do at home to help keep birds warm?

  • If outside of bear country, leave out high calorie bird food and suet which provide lots of nutrients. Buy your seasonal seed blends at Wild Birds Unlimited.
  • Provide heated bird baths.
  • Plant shelter such as coniferous trees and shrubs. You can also leave your fall leaves for nest building this season.
  • Hang bird houses around your yard to promote cuddles.

If you see an animal in need, contact Greenwood for assistance at (303) 823-8455.

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