It seemed like a good idea on Saturday afternoon. The nor’easter was starting to wind down and a romp in the snow sounded like fun. I donned my trusty snowshoes and headed outside. I lurched along, tripping over my own snowshoes and getting bogged down in the deep drifts. I had one glorious moment of ungainly forward motion and then my snowshoes headed east and I headed west. I listed a bit and then slowly sank into the snow. There I stayed, staring up into the blowing snow and listening to the deep, white silence. It was really quiet. Where were the birds?
Unlike this intrepid winter explorer, the birds knew enough to stay sheltered until the storm had passed. Arctic birds such as grouse, Snow Buntings and redpolls burrow into the snow to keep warm. Some birds, like nuthatches and creepers, roost together in tree cavities. Others nestle in the shelter of evergreens or brush piles. The lucky ones are able to take advantage of man-made structures like roost houses provided by bird-lovers. There they stay, warm and snug, until the storms abate and it’s safe to venture out for food.
Birds use a number of different ways to manage during periods of extreme cold. Did you know that feathers can provide greater insulation than a mammal’s hair? Birds can fluff up their feathers to create air pockets that retain heat, a bit like putting on a fluffy down jacket. You may have noticed on very cold days that little juncos and sparrows will pause from feeding and drop down to cover their legs with their breast feathers, or maybe stand on one leg with the other pulled up under the body. That helps to reduce some of the heat lost through their exposed legs. Some species have an amazing ability to change the blood circulation in their legs to reduce heat loss. Still others, like hummingbirds, can go into a state of torpor, which is similar to hibernation. The birds lower their core body temperature, becoming inactive and unresponsive to what is happening around them. They can then raise their body temperatures back up to normal when it’s safe to start moving around and feeding again.
By Sunday afternoon the sun was sparkling on the snow, I had extricated myself from the snowdrift, and the birds were visiting the feeders. Today I bought a few more raffia roosting pockets to hang near my feeders. In cold weather the little birds will be able to grab a seed or two and then go into the shelter of the roosting pockets to eat—and in the spring some small birds might even use them for nesting. Despite their amazing ways of surviving the frosty winter weather, my little friends can use all the help they can get!
Make every day a happy bird day!