Feathers Aren’t Just for Flying

When Feathers Just Aren’t Enough, A Little Helping Hand Keeps Backyard Birds Flocking to Feeders

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Winter birds survive the whipping winds and heavy snow during brutally cold winters with nothing more than their magical feathers.

We rely on scientifically engineered synthetic materials to battle the cold, so you might wonder how our delicate feathered friends survive the frigid wintery conditions.

One word: adaption.

Birds evolved unique adaptations to survive brutally cold winter conditions like arctic blasts and polar vortexes.

We don’t wear down coats to stay warm in the extreme winter elements just because we like wearing feathers. We wear them because they keep us quite toasty.

intobirds grey heron in the snow
Grey Heron enjoys a trout in the snow

Magical Feathers

Birds are magical creatures, and their feathers are the equivalent of Harry Potter’s wand. Every feather wields magic.

Feathers are marvels of engineering even though an average feather weighs .0082 grams. They’re incredibly lightweight yet strong, durable, and have exceptional insulating and waterproofing capabilities.

The secret to a feather’s magical powers lies in a preening gland at the base of a bird’s tail. Birds take oil from their preening gland to treat their feathers, adding more insulation and waterproofing to them.

You’ve probably seen birds looking fluffier at times, and that’s because they can contour their feathers.

Birds flatten or fluff up their feathers to create more airspace between them as a way to regulate temperature. So the hotter a bird gets, the flatter its feathers become with no airspace.

The colder a bird is, the fluffier they become by puffing up and trapping air that adds insulation between their feathers.

When birds are sleeping at night, they tuck their beaks into their feathers on their shoulders or back to reduce heat loss from their unfeathered beaks. Birds also breathe in air that has been warmed in pockets trapped by their feathers.

intobirds bluejay in the snow
Our backyard Bluejay, Big Blue, enduring the whipping winds and heavy snow of a nor’easter

A Bird’s Adaption Secret: Thermoregulation

Thermoregulation is one of the incredible abilities birds have to endure adverse environments. Thermoregulation helps birds reduce 20%-50% of their heat loss by sitting.

Even though birds adapted to conserve heat and stay warm, they can still succumb to extremely frigid temperatures. As a result, birds’ mortality rates become relatively high during severe winter.

Wildlife rehabilitators are pretty busy during the winter months, helping birds struggling to survive.

Knowing how to help keep birds warm gives your backyard feathered friends an advantage over the harsh elements, and as people who love birds, making our backyard birds content makes us feel happier.

Looking Beyond Feathers to Keep Winter Birds Happy

Here are a few things you can do to keep your backyard filled with beautiful bursts of color only birds can provide.

Provide Quality Food

Providing the best winter bird food doesn’t mean it must be gourmet. Select seeds, suet, nuts, peanut butter, and scraps high in fat and calories to give birds plenty of energy to generate more body heat.

We give our suet-loving birds woodpecker cakes and peanut suet nuggets.

Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers enjoy these products, and it keeps them coming to the feeders throughout the day.

So do Carolina Wrens, Dark-eyed Juncos, Bluebirds, and other songbirds.

Our primary bird food for backyard birds is sunflower chips and No-Mess Plus Blend birdseed from Wild Birds Unlimited. These products keep the feeding area cleaner, and the ground-dwelling birds like the White-throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves love it.

Keep Feeders Full

After long, cold nights, the birds need ready access to food in the early morning to replenish their energy reserves.

The birds are up at the crack of dawn looking for sustenance long before we’ve climbed out of our warm beds, so this requires attention and dedication from you.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting our peanut suet feeder during a winter storm
Female Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting our peanut suet feeder during a winter storm

That means keeping your bird feeders stocked with nutritious seed no matter what the weather is like outside, so the birds know where to go for a high-energy meal.

We replenish food several times a day before, during, and after snowstorms to ensure our feathered friends are well fed.

Offer Water

Birds can melt snow to drink if necessary, but then the bird uses the precious energy it needs to maintain its body heat.

Consider offering birds a heated birdbath they can drink from in freezing temperatures, and your backyard birds have a much better chance at survival.

Eastern Blue birds enjoying some fresh water on a cold winter's day
Eastern Blue birds enjoying some fresh water on a cold winter’s day

Provide Shelter

Plant evergreen shrubs and coniferous trees to provide suitable shelter throughout the winter, and leave fall brush piles to give birds a safe, sheltered place to roost.

We have several Carolina Wrens using our brush piles for shelter, and we keep bundles of sticks and wood around the yard as wren “houses” they retreat to throughout the day.

Wrens are fun to watch romping in the snow

Adding a roost box to your yard is also helpful.

So as the temperatures continue to plummet, don’t worry about keeping your backyard birds warm.

Nature efficient adaptations help birds survive severe winter weather, but a little helping hand of good food, shelter, and other necessities keeps winter birds flocking to your backyard.

If you have any tips to share about keeping your backyard winter birds happy, please feel free to comment below. Happy Birdwatching!


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  1. Thanks for the useful information. Yes, birds are magical. In winter, I wear a lot of layers but still can’t stand the cold because of such harsh weather. But the birds in the wild, only have a small plumage, but they still operate normally under such cold and snow. That’s why we always admire them for being able to adapt so well. I usually prepare plenty of food, warm water, and some warmth for the birds if they come to my backyard.

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