How Do Birds Cope In the Winter?

November 18, 2011

It’s a common question among backyard birders – where do the birds that don’t migrate south for the winter sleep during those frigid nights? Not only that, but how on earth do they manage to stay warm? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

First, where they sleep. It may sound like a cop-out, but it’s true – most birds will sleep anywhere they can that they think will keep them warm. Songbirds such as cardinals, finches, and blue jays will usually seek out patches of thick vegetation, such as brambles, briers, or grape vines. Other naturally-occurring shelters that these birds will use include conifers and ivy-covered walls. Other songbirds – like woodpeckers, wrens, nuthatches and titmice – will seek out cavity-like shelters similar to the ones that they nest in.

Yet these shelters alone will not do the trick of keeping a bird warm during the winter nights. Birds have thus developed several other biological mechanisms and behaviors that aid them in their quest for survival. For starters, birds have much higher metabolisms than do humans, and consequently have much higher internal body temperatures. It varies by the bird, but the average body temperature is around 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with this higher starting point, it is hard for birds to maintain their temperature, having a disproportionate large amount of surface area to heat up relative to their core volume that generates it. So how do they overcome this? First, foremost, and most obvious are their feathers. Feathers are a great source of insulation against the cold, and many birds even grow extra feathers in the winter to further provide warmth. Not only this, but the oil that covers the feathers also provides another source of insulation. As a last option, birds will also fluff their feathers out – doing this creates air pockets that provides still more insulation.

It’s not just the feathers, however. Birds’ legs and feet are covered with specialized scales that are able to minimize heat loss. Not only that, but birds have the ability to constrict blood flow to their limbs via their control over the temperatures over their legs and feet – which further minimizes the heat loss. It’s also not uncommon to see birds tucking their limbs and other uncovered body parts underneath their feathers to afford them the same insulation that the rest of their body is getting.

So the next time you see one of your beautiful backyard birds looking for a place to sleep on a winter’s evening, don’t assume that it’ll be the last time you see that bird alive. Odds are that, thanks to its survival mechanisms, you’ll see it flying around again the next day, eating your seed as usual.

By Sean Peick (Guest Writer)

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

barbara November 26, 2011 at 8:16 pm

I was very interested in your article How Do Birds Cope in the Winter. Even in the south we have below freezing temps that birds are not used to. I have cleaned my houses out and have put shredded newspaper inside almost up to the hole. I will be watching them this year to see how they manage. I always make sure there is fresh water and seed for them to eat. They need our help…be there for them.

Benjamin December 26, 2011 at 11:52 am

The article about how birds cope in the winter is a very interesting article. It shows how amazing God’s creatures are!

r. gelino January 4, 2012 at 10:37 am

I’m not sure that putting shredded newspaper in birdhouses is such a good idea. Newspaper will absorb moisture from the air, making it damp and cold. I have 3 bluebird houses on my property. In early Winter, I clean out the old, dirty nests, and replace them with freshly cut dried grass. I can tell if the houses are in use, since the birds hollow out a nest. When temps go down to the teens, I block up the ventilation slits at the top, making each house a little snugger. I’ve watched 4 bluebirds exit one house, just as dawn breaks, so they must like what I do for them.

Sandi January 4, 2012 at 11:46 am

I really like this article. Do you think birds would use gourd birdhouses in the winter?

Susan S. January 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Hi, I also loved this article. I always wondered how they coped in our NH winters and especially the storms we get. I always worry about them! Thanks for printing this! :) ~Sue

ALISON R January 4, 2012 at 8:22 pm

LAST WINTER I SAW 4 EASTERN BLUE BIRDS CRAM INTO I BIRD HOUSE LATE IN THE AFTER NOON ! IAM IN R.I.

BDH of FL January 5, 2012 at 10:46 pm

In response to Sandi’s post, yes, I have a gourd house that a bluebird used one winter during the cold nights. I put potting soil in the bottom and spaghnum moss over that. The hole is quite large and oval and it hangs on our front porch under a roof.

Patricia January 5, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Loved the article. Just today we were wondering where they sleep during the winter at night. Now we know. They always surface in the early a.m. to eat our delicious oiled sunflower seeds we purchase from Duncraft. So far the seed has attracted not only the cardinals we were seeking, but crested titmice, redwing blackbirds, bewith wrens, white wing doves, house sparrows, house wrens, and some kind of large black bird. We can’t wait to see what else it may attract as the birds pass through on their way further south.

Kris January 7, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I heard that dryer lint was a good insulator. But I’m not so sure about it. Any ideas?

Kris January 7, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I heard that dryer lint was a good insulater for winter house’s. But I’m not so sure about it. Any idea’s.

Diane February 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

I always save the lint from the dryer filter and place it in one of those bags what onions lbs. are usually sold.
And, I was also told that the “first born” of a wren family will come back the next year to build his/her family’s nest ? Is that true ? Or was I told a
“birder-myth”…?

patricia tia November 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

An excellant article.

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