Winter is the Best Time for Backyard Birding
Once the insects have withdrawn for the winter. After the fruits and berries have been devoured from the trees and shrubs. When the seeds from native perennials, grasses and forbs are scarce, birds flock to the feeders.
Winter, especially February, can be a harsh time for birds. Supplementing wild food sources with backyard bird feeders will bring these special visitors closer to your home and may help them survive the harshest season.
|Northern Cardinal (female) and White-throated Sparrow|
|Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow|
And then there are some birds, like the red-bellied woodpecker, who just fly in and take command.
Winter is an excellent time to observe birds that don't normally frequent backyard feeders. I've noticed that bluebirds become braver and find the gusto to dash in and mingle with other song birds when temperatures are frigid.
You can learn more about the special feeding needs of bluebirds in winter here.
|Eastern Bluebird (male)|
Some birds will collect seeds during summer and fall hiding them for times when food is more limited. I often observe woodpeckers caching sunflower seeds in tree cavities. They can only hope that other birds or animals don't find their stash.
Birds have extremely high metabolisms, and cold weather increases their caloric needs. The body temperature of birds, which ranges from 104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, determines how high their metabolism is. In winter, birds need to produce more heat to stay warm.
|Eastern Bluebird (female)|
Some birds, such as the Carolina Chickadee, will go into nocturnal torpor, which lowers their body temperature, heart rate and breathing to conserve energy. This practice can save as much as 20% of their energy.
Some song birds wear a much different coat in winter, than during breeding season, making them much less flashy. Take the American Goldfinch, who dresses down for winter in a drab olive cloak. A stark contrast to his bright canary yellow in summer.
Like mammals, some birds will grow more feathers for winter to keep warm. The American Goldfinch has 1,000 more feathers in winter than summer. Smart bird!
Birds use their feathers to stay warm. You may observe birds perched on tree limbs, fences or in shrubs looking plump and pudgy. By puffing up their feathers, they trap in air allowing their body heat to warm up the air between their feathers and body, providing an additional layer of insulation against the cold.
Birds will also sleep with their bill under their wing feathers to breathe in the warm air.
Constant shivering increases their body temperature (thermogenosis). This produces heat at 5 times their normal rate.
Now, you may be wondering about their exposed feet. Birds' feet are bones covered in a rough skin, which unlike humans' feet, contains very little water. The blood vessels in their legs are also designed to keep their feet warm. Arteries keep warm blood flowing from the heart down to their legs.
Dehydration is actually a bigger threat to birds than starvation in winter. Providing a heated bird bath will attract lots of birds to your garden when fewer non-frozen water sources exist. In addition to drinking, water is needed for preening feathers. Without proper preening, feathers won't stay in position and aligned, causing gaps where heat can escape, thus lowering the birds body temperature.
Backyard birders and feeder watchers like me can help document the diversity of birds in your area this weekend (February 12-15, 2016) by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen-science project helps document birds in rural, urban and natural areas. For more information on this engaging and educational event click here.