How Do Birds Stay Warm In The Winter? A Detailed View

December 29, 2021 // 11 minute read

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While most bird species migrate to warmer areas for winter, certain birds stay in the same area for winter. This is despite the fact that the cold offers them unideal living conditions. Because of this, many bird watchers wonder, do birds get cold? And if they do, how do they stay warm? 

The short answer to the question is, yes, birds do get cold. However, as they always do, they have found strategic ways to protect themselves from it and survive no matter how freezing temperatures are. 

In this article, we’ll discuss how birds stay warm in winter. Particularly, we’ll look into birds’ physical adaptations and their behavioral adaptations, which will include:  

  1. Fluffing
  2. Tucking
  3. Sunning
  4. Shivering
  5. Roosting
  6. Torpor

We’ll also share how you can help keep birds stay warm, where they sleep in winter, and what bird species you’ll find in winter. We’ll also answer some FAQs, so if you’re curious how birds stay warm in winter, read on… 

How Birds Stay Warm In Winter

Just like us, birds are warm-blooded animals with a much higher metabolism and higher body temperature than us. And just like us, their body temperature can fluctuate depending on several factors. And when the temperature drops so low, maintaining body heat can be challenging. 

Unlike us, birds can’t wear coats, hats, or gloves to protect themselves in the cold weather. But, they are smart, and they have developed several adaptive strategies. 

In this section of the article, we’ll divide their adaptation into two, physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations to survive in winter. 

Physical Adaptations

Let’s start with the physical adaptations. 

First of all, birds have weapons on their body that protects them from the cold. These are their feathers, legs and feet, and fats. 

Bird feathers provide them excellent insulation against the cold weather. In fact, many bird species depend on their feathers so much that they grow extra feathers to offer additional insulation for winter. 

We also know that birds groom their feathers, and it’s found that this is also for winter preparation as much as it is for flying. It is said that the natural oil from their uropygial gland that coats their feathers provides additional insulation to protect the birds in winter. 

Apart from the feathers, a bird’s legs and feet are also covered with specialized scales that keep most of their heat in their body. On top of that, birds have found a way to control the temperature of their legs and feet separately from their bodies. Thus, protecting their feet from getting frostbite. 

Lastly, birds would fatten up themselves before winter, just eating lots of food. The purpose is to give their bodies more fat reserves to ensure that they have extra energy to generate more heat. 

Behavioral Adaptations

Aside from the physical adaptations, birds have also found a way to adapt to the cold through some changes in their behavior. 

Fluffing

The first thing you might notice with birds visiting your feathers is that they look cute and fluffy. The birds actually undergo what we call “fluffing”. Birds fluff out their feathers to provide extra insulation. 

Tucking

Aside from fluffing, you might also see some bird species tucking their heads to their bodies. 

Do you know how sometimes when you’re too cold, you start rubbing your palms together and blow some air into it before tucking them down to your body? It’s like that. 

Birds tuck their bills into their shoulder feathers and then breathe out some air to warm their bodies. 

Another way they do this action is by tucking their legs and feet inside their bodies. This helps them protect their feet from frostbite in freezing temperatures. 

Sunning

Winter is cold, but there are days when the sun is out. And when these days come, birds are quick to take advantage of that solar heat. 

They’ll find an open space and expose themselves to the sun. They would usually turn their backs from it, because it’s the largest part of their body, and then they’ll raise their feathers. This way, the sun would hit most parts of their body and give them enough heat. 

Sometimes they would even spread their tails and wings to cover more surface area and heat them up faster. 

Shivering

Another common way birds stay warm is by shivering. Normally, when you’re already cold, the most common response of our body is to shiver. It’s like a way to produce more body heat fast. 

For birds, shivering is something they do consciously and not just as a simple body response to cold. They actually force themselves to shiver to raise their metabolic rates and increase their body temperatures quickly. And because such action can cause them to lose some calories, they only do it under extremely cold temperatures when their body heat becomes too low. 

Roosting

Many bird species help each other to warm up. Small birds tend to gather in large flocks at night and occupy a very small space to share body heat. It’s like when humans hug each other, but for birds, they just simply group together. 

Birds like bluebirds, house wrens, chickadees, sparrows, and kinglets would gather in shrubs, pine bushes, birdhouses, or on branches to huddle together and keep warm. 

Torpor

Probably the most common way birds adapt in the cold winter season is by entering torpor. This is like hibernating to conserve their energy on cold winter nights.

When birds enter torpor, they lower their body temperature and slow down their metabolism rate to conserve more energy. This is usually done when there’s a very little food source and birds can no longer risk depletion of more calories. 

Birds in this state can be in a lot of potential danger. While a torpor, birds can be very weak, which means responses against predator attacks can be slower, too. 

Normally, when birds exit torpor, they will shiver to raise their body temperature quickly. And when they do, they need to find food immediately as they have used a lot of their calories. 

Burrowing

This action is not common to most birds, but they are in a few bird species. Birds like snow buntings and redpolls would burrow in the snow to create some caves which serve as insulation against the cold weather. 

How To You Can Help Birds Keep Warm

While birds have found effective ways to keep themselves warm for winter, surviving can still be hard. Most birds still die during winter, and when the cold is severe, the bird mortality rate becomes so high. 

Because of this, it’s very important that you still help them keep warm by providing food, water, and shelter. 

Offer birds food that will give them plenty of fat and calories to help them conserve their energy. We highly recommend giving them peanut butter, suet, nuts, and seeds that are high in fat. On top of that, you need to make sure that feeders are always full of seeds, no matter how cold it is outside. 

During these times, birds need as much food. And if you keep on providing for them, they’ll be more familiar with your feeders, and they’ll keep visiting it any time that they need to replenish lost energy. 

Aside from food, provide water for birds, too. It’s highly recommended to use a heated birdbath so that water will stay liquid even under extreme cold. Because while snow can be used by birds as water, melting that snow can cause birds to lose whatever little energy they have left.

Most importantly, provide birds shelter. Plant shrubs or trees and build brush piles or birdhouses to serve as shelter for birds in winter. You can also position these shelters near windbreaks to provide more protection for birds against the cold. 

FAQs On How Birds Stay Warm In The Winter

What temperature is too cold for birds?

Birds, in general, can tolerate temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. However, below that, especially temperatures reaching below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, will be so cold that birds will start fluffing or doing everything they can to stay warm. 

How do birds not freeze in winter?

As mentioned above, birds have developed coping strategies to survive the coldest temperatures. 

Their feathers are well insulated, their feet are scaled to prevent frostbite, they store fat reserves before winter for added insulation, and they have developed behaviors that help them keep warm, including: 

  • Fluffing
  • Tucking
  • Sunning
  • Shivering
  • Roosting
  • Torpor
  • Burrowing

These birds also depend a lot on you to provide them with more food, water, and shelter to aid them with surviving. 

Do birds use birdhouses in winter? 

Yes, birds do use birdhouses in winter. 

As many bird species choose not to migrate to warmer areas, birds that are left behind consider these birdhouses as safehouses. It’s one of the go-to places for many birds to huddle together because the space is small, making their bodies more compact and preserving their heat well. 

Should you feed birds in winter? 

Yes, you should feed birds in winter. 

As mentioned above, birds need as much energy as possible, and they can mainly get this from fats and proteins of food. Now, because food sources are low in winter and the temperature is too cold, finding something to eat is more challenging for birds. 

However, if you’re always providing them with something to eat, the chances they’ll survive becomes bigger. This is because they become more familiar with your place. They become aware that there’s food that, which means every time they need to replenish their energy, they can come back to your place. 

So fill your bird feeders with fat or protein-rich seeds. You can also serve peanut butter and suet to provide them with more energy. 

Do birds eat snow for water in winter?

Yes, they do eat snow for water in winter. But only if there are no water sources around them. This is because while birds can turn snow into water as a drink, it costs them a lot of energy to warm the snow before drinking it. And this action can be extremely dangerous for birds. 

That’s why even though they can eat snow for water in winter, it’s still best to provide them with fresh water in winter through a heated birdbath. This way, water won’t freeze, and you can provide fresh, warm water to birds every time. 

Where do birds sleep in winter?

Birds have the incredible ability to find warm spots in winter. They will sleep in the gap between barks and tree trunks, natural cavities, hedgerows, thick vegetations, roof spaces, and other tight spaces that are not exposed to too much cold wind. 

What birds can I spot in my backyard during winter? 

The most common birds you’ll find in your backyard in winter includes: 

  • Finches
  • Sparrows
  • Titmice
  • Goldfinches
  • Woodpeckers
  • Chickadees
  • Cardinals

And a whole lot more! 

How Do Birds Stay Warm In The Winter – Final Thoughts

Winter is one of the biggest causes of birds’ high mortality rate. This is because birds generally have to fight hard to survive. 

It’s only a good thing that birds have learned to adapt to this kind of situation, that they learned several strategic ways to adapt, such as: 

  • Fluffing their feathers
  • Tucking their feet in
  • Sunning
  • Shivering
  • Huddling together
  • Torpor
  • Burrowing

But sometimes, even with all these strategic ways, there are still birds who die when temperatures are extreme. This is why as a bird watcher, you should help make sure that birds have enough energy to do everything above. 

Provide birds with good food, give them water, and most of all, make sure that there’s enough shelter around your yard. In other words, prepare your backyard to be a great accommodation for birds in winter. 

This way, they won’t have to spend a lot of time roaming around searching for food, water, or a safe place to sleep. 

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