It’s a well-known fact that most birds fly south for the winter. But what about our feathered friends that tough it out throughout the winter, how do they survive?


A Black-capped Chickadee (Photo: Libby Buck)

Our backyard songbirds such as the Black-capped Chickadee or the Northern Cardinal survive by using instincts, species adaptations, and of course, with a little help from humans. For songbirds it’s instinctual to seek shelter, especially during winter storms. There are many different types of shelters that these birds will utilize such as shrubs, nesting boxes, cavities in trees, or human-made structures. Some birds like the chickadee have an adaptation that allows them to be able to control their body temperature called “regulated hypothermia”. They are able to reduce their body temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit from their daytime level, which ultimately helps them use less energy trying to maintain a higher temperature. Also, you may have seen many birds hopping around on one leg in the winter. Please know that most likely they aren’t hurt, what they are doing is trying to keep one foot warm in their downy feathers, which are small, insulating feathers found close to their bodies. Bird’s feet can reach freezing temperatures because of countercurrent heat exchange system, and because their feet are made up of tendons and bones they aren’t susceptible to frostbite.

red cardinal bird on tree branch

A male Northern Cardinal (Photo: Harvey Reed)

If you would like to help these birds brave the winter it’s an excellent idea to have a bird feeder, or better yet, a heated bird bath. Once everything freezes over fresh water is hard to come by, and some birds will resort to eating snow and ice, but having a continuous supply of fresh water would be ideal. Having a bird feeder is extremely helpful for songbird survival, especially if it is a harsh winter and their food sources are depleted. A wide variety of birds love sunflower seeds, many finches and smaller birds enjoy nyjer seed, and a suet feeder will attract birds that need higher energy sources such as woodpeckers and nuthatches. You never know who will visit your birdfeeder; on Nantucket we frequently get rare birds making a pit stop on their migration route. Always keep your eyes peeled for something fun!

blue grosbeak

A rare sighting of a female Blue Grosbeak in late winter of 2017. (Photo: Libby Buck)




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