Helping Backyard Birds Survive the Polar Vortex

Food, Shelter, and Other Necessities Keep Winter Birds Safe

Everyone is worried about the life-threatening arctic blast, also known as the polar vortex, roaring into the U.S. next week, but those of us who love birds wonder how our feathered friends will survive.

You’re probably thinking, “poor birds, how do they survive in the whipping winds and heavy snow?”

Well, think again.

Male Northern Cardinal braves the strong winds in frigid temperatures
Male Northern Cardinal braves the strong winds in frigid temperatures

Human’s don’t wear down coats to stay warm in the extreme winter elements just because we like wearing feathers.

We wear down coats because they keep us warm. Quite toasty in most cases.

Birds have developed and evolved unique adaptations to survival brutally cold winter conditions.

Even a polar vortex.

Magical Feathers

A bird’s feathers are quite magical.

Feathers have evolved into many forms and are marvels of engineering.

An average feather weighs .0082 grams.

And even though feathers are incredibly lightweight, they are strong, durable and have amazing insulating capabilities.

Birds have a preen gland at the base of their tail that they take oil from to treat their feathers, adding more insulation and waterproofing to them.

White-throated Sparrow on a cold winter day
White-throated Sparrow on a cold winter day

You’ve probably seen birds looking fluffier at times and that 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.

The hotter a bird gets, the flatter their feather become with no airspace.

The colder a bird is, the fluffier they become as they puff up and trap air that acts as additional insulation between their feathers.

When birds are sleeping at night, they tuck their beaks into their feathers on their shoulder 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.

Carolina Wren enjoying black sunflower seeds
Carolina Wren enjoying black sunflower seeds

Bird’s Adaption Secret: Thermoregulation

This process is called thermoregulation, and it’s one of the fantastic abilities birds have to endure adverse environments.

Thermoregulation helps birds reduce 20%-50% of their heat loss by sitting.

Even though birds have adapted to conserve heat and stay warm, they can still succumb to extremely frigid temperatures.

Birds mortality can be quite high during severe winter.

So knowing how to help keep birds warm can give your backyard feathered friends an advantage over the harsh elements.

Keeping Birds Warm

Here are a few things backyard birders can do to keep welcoming winter birds to your during the polar vortex and keep your yard filled beautiful bursts of color only birds can provide.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are frequent visitors to suet feeders in the winterRed-bellied Woodpeckers are frequent visitors to suet feeders in the winter

Offer Good Food

Offering the best winter bird foods means selecting seeds, suet, nuts, peanut butter, scraps and other items high in fat and calories to give birds plenty of energy to generate more body heat.

At intoBirds, we use a blend of different of bird food to keep our feathered friends happy.

We give our suet-loving birds the National Audubon Society Signature Harvest Woodpecker Cake (available at Lowe’s $6.98) and C and S Peanut Suet Nuggets. (Six 27-ounce bags on Amazon $26.94).

Dark-eyed Junco and Carolina Wren enjoying National Audubon Society Signature Harvest Woodpecker Cakes
Dark-eyed Junco and Carolina Wren enjoying National Audubon Society Signature Harvest Woodpecker Cakes

The 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 and other backyard birds.

Our primary choice of bird food is Harvest Seed & Supply’s wild bird food sold exclusively through Walmart.

The company makes an excellent No Waste Blend that keeps your feeding area cleaner.

We recently began using Harvest Seed & Supplies two newest products.

Orchard Blend (attracts kinglets, buntings, chickadees, nuthatches, towhees and more) and Suet Crunch (attracts nuthatches, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and more.

Both products have been a hit with our backyard birds.

READ: Top 8 Foods to Attract Winter Birds to Your Feeder

Keep Feeders Full

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

This takes dedication on the backyard birder’s part.

Blue Jay keeping a watchful eye out for backyard predators
Blue Jay keeping a watchful eye out for backyard predators

And means keeping bird feeders full of nutritious seed no matter what the weather is like outside, so the birds know where to go for a high energy meal.

We go out several times a day in snow storms and pouring rain to make sure our feathered friends are well fed.

Offer Water

Birds can melt snow to drink if necessary.

But doing so uses a bird’s precious energy that is needed to maintain their body heat.

Consider offering birds a heated bird bath they can drink from in freezing temperatures, and the birds have a much better chance at survival.

READ: Be A Responsible Backyard Birder

Be sure to offer your backyard birds like this female Northern Cardinal fresh water
Be sure to offer your backyard birds like this female Northern Cardinal fresh water

Provide Shelter

Plant evergreen shrubs and coniferous trees that will provide suitable shelter throughout the winter.

Consider building a brush pile to give birds a safe, sheltered place to roost.

We have a pair of Carolina Wrens that have taken shelter in our brush pile, and we enjoy having them as part of our backyard flock.

Adding a roost box to your yard is also helpful.

Keeping Winter Birds in Your Backyard

So as the temperatures continue to plummet into and the polar vortex makes its way to wherever you live, you don’t need to worry about keeping your backyard birds warm.

Nature has afforded them efficient adaptations to survive polar vortex.

But a little helping hand of good food, shelter, and other necessities keeps winter birds flocking to your backyard.

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  1. I always feel so bad for them still. Even if one has the ability to survive something, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a pleasant experience to stay alive… I live in MN. Kept feeder filled, got a few roosting pockets, I might’ve opened the door or garage a few times just to let heat escape for them since they are close to the door. I even took a few damp towels, microwaved them in a Ziploc bag, and lied it under a bush where they huddle for ten minutes to provide some warmth but threw it away after fifteen minutes since it could be dangerous for birds if left unguarded by the human eye for long periods…I made sure to watch the birds and plastic bags to make sure birds were ok. I know our cardinal couple survived, a chickadee for sure and a number of house sparrows too but even if I haven’t seen birds , that doesn’t mean they didn’t it since they’re really good at hiding too… little tiny cheep cheeps. I hope they make it through safely

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