How birds survive the winter
With the frigid temperatures we’ve been having and several inches of snow on the ground, plus a wind-chill dipping into the sub-zero range, you may wonder how birds survive the winter. This is especially true with snow covering their food sources be it seeds, buds or berries. Heartier wild game birds such as pheasants, grouse and turkeys, have to scratch deep into the snow to hopefully find food, otherwise brush buds, leftover corn and soybeans are their major diets.
As for crows, they're opportunists. They're converge on trash dumpsters and pick open garbage bags or they'll feast on road kills.
Thankfully for avid birders who put out bird feeders filled with peanut hearts, sunflower seeds and suet, birds will flock to these food sources and survive. But for those who don’t have these considerate, well meaning hand-outs, here’s how a good many can make it through the winter.
To find out how the hardy ones do it, Charles Eldermire, the Bird Cams Project Leader at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, writes in the Birding Wire, have a basic rule of survival: Feathers + Food Equals Warmth.
Eldermire offers a five-step survival guide that comes down to this:
*Hang around with others when possible. When you see birds in the wintertime, they’re generally flocked. He says there are several reasons for that. First, when you’re in a group, you have more eyes looking around - and that means fewer chances of something (hawks and feral cats) looking for food eating you. Flocking also means more birds foraging, saving energy in the search for food.
*If you find a feeder, park in front of it and chow down. From feeders to seedy plants, you want to find all you can, eat all you can, and keep eating. Birds want the heaviest, fattiest foods possible (like black-oil sunflower and suet if you’re looking for something good to offer them) but there’s also a downside. Eat too-much and you’ll be slower. In the world of the bird, the slower you are, the more the likelihood you’ll wind up as someone else’s dinner.
*If you can’t eat more, just get puffy and rest. Their fluffy down feathers serve the same purpose as the ones in your puffy down winter coat. You can use your own metabolism to generate heat. Feathers do a great job of keeping body heat in while keeping cold air out. Eldermire says we should take pity on the woodpeckers of the world because they lack down feathers.
*Stay out of the wind. Doesn’t take much explanation. If the wind is howling from the east, get on the other side of the tree, shrub or feeder. Less wind is better.
*If you find shelter, get in it. The warmest our feathered friends can get is snugged into a small cavity where their down feathers can do their job at keeping in warmth and the small cavity will help keep any heat that does escape around their bodies. Bird boxes help here.
In an ideal world, combine all the prior ideas together. Eat, stay puffy, rest and conserve energy. The rules of survival in the birding world.
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Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.