Weather conditions of late have been interesting. There have been sub-zero temperatures at times coupled with snow carried on winds that push wind chill factors to unspeakably cold numbers. It would be an understatement to say, “It’s cold outside.”
Can you imagine living outdoors year round? The birds do, and right now these remarkable creatures are in winter survival mode.
It may come as a surprise to many that our feathered friends are pretty well equipped to handle the full force of everything that old man winter has to dish out.
It is estimated that about 2.3 million Pennsylvanians are backyard birders. And right now there are a lot of folks asking, “How do the birds stay warm when it becomes so cold?”
When compared to humans, birds have a high rate of metabolism and maintain a body temperature averaging between 105 to 106 degrees.
Due to size, smaller birds have a proportionally larger surface area on their bodies to lose heat and a smaller core area to generate it. With that in mind, no wonder the smaller birds tend to spend additional time visiting the backyard feeders than the larger birds.
Regardless of size, birds are pretty well equipped to fight off even the harshest of winter weather.
A bird’s first line of defense from the cold is its feathers. Prior to winter many species of birds molt feathers that are replaced with extra ones. Also a bird’s feathers have an oil coating. The coating of oil provides additional insulation and acts as a waterproofing agent.
To provide additional insulation, birds will fluff their feathers. By doing so additional pockets of air are trapped providing additional insulation.
Birds will also tuck their bills into their shoulder feathers for protection and to breathe warmer air. Many hunters have seen this, especially when pursuing wild turkeys in the fall.
Even the bird’s feet are uniquely designed. The scales on the bird’s legs are designed to reduce heat loss. Even more interesting is that a bird can control the temperature of their legs and extremities to control heat loss.
On sunny days birds will take advantage of what the sun has to offer. With their backs to the sun, birds expose as much of their bodies to sunlight as possible.
Birds often take advantage of the manner in which we heat our homes. Chimneys, especially those constructed of brick, are consistently heated providing a heated perch.
A frequent visitor to the backyard birdfeeder is the chickadee. This small bird and a number of others can trigger an energy saving mechanism called torpor.
Torpor is described as a state of reduced metabolism or reduction in body temperature. Researchers have found that most birds can lower their body temperatures by a few degrees. However, some species capable of torpor have lowered their temperatures as much as 50 degrees. Chickadees regularly use this mechanism to survive cold temperatures.
Another insulator birds use to keep warm is body fat. In the case of chickadees and finches, 10 percent of their body weight made up of fat is a key to winter survival.
In the winter months birds require a diet of quality high fat sources of food. Suet, peanuts, black oiled, and striped sunflower seeds, and Niger seed are good choices. For the sake of the birds, use quality seed and not those available that includes fillers.
So how much feed does it take to feed one bird? Let’s use the chickadee as an example. The average chickadee tips the scales between .3 & .5 oz. Daily this little bird, while eating sunflower seeds, will consume the equivalent of 35 percent of its body weight in seeds. However keep in mind that on colder days that percentage increases.
Birds will survive without your feeder(s). The draw is convenience. However, once a feeder is established, maintain the food source until late spring.
Another consideration is water. An ice-free source of clean water is important to a bird’s survival.
When feeding the birds, remember you are not alone. The 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation Americans revealed that 60 million Americans feed wild birds.
The dollars spent to feed the birds is staggering with more than $4 billion dollars spent annually. Another $1 billion is spent on birdfeeders, nesting boxes, baths, and other accessories.
Simply put, feeding the birds is fun, and can be educational as well. Some consider the pastime therapeutic and a great way to kick the wintertime blues.
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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net