Tufted titmouse

When it’s cold and nasty outside, we go inside to stay warm, possibly by a fireplace. However, our feathered friends are not as fortunate and must overwinter outside. They might get lucky and find a barn or other shelter to avoid the bitter wind chill, but some simply must trust Mother Nature to help. So, just how do they survive our sometimes bitter cold winters?

As the temperatures dip, birds acquire adaptive behaviors to survive cold nights. They might lose up to 15% of their body weight. Some grow additional feathers to thicken their insulation. Others do feather fluffing to create air pockets that trap body heat. Still others lower their metabolic rates to cause their body temperature to decline and heart rates to decrease so fewer calories are burned on cold winter nights. 



At a time when caloric requirements are increasing, their food supplies (e.g., insects, seeds, weeds, fruits and nuts) are being eaten rapidly or sometimes simply do not exist in our landscapes. And, with freezing temperatures, water is not available at a time when dehydration is more critical than starvation. Eating snow takes precious energy, and water is needed for hydration and preening to keep feathers aligned and positioned to prevent the faster loss of body heat.

What can we do to help them survive the elements? We can provide continuous filling of bird feeders with their favorite high-energy foods such as Nyjer seed, black oil sunflower seed and suet, which birds come to rely on throughout the winter. You can even supplement the seeds with mealworms and peanut butter. Avoid toxic foods such as chocolate, apple seeds, onions, mushrooms, avocado, dried beans, tomato leaves, salt and alcohol. Make sure the seed is fully accessible and dry. Consider keeping an extra feeder on hand for longer periods of severe weather. 



Water in a liquid state can be maintained by using heated birdbaths or by placing heating elements in existing baths. Most heaters are thermostatically controlled so they energize when temperatures drop below freezing. Nesting boxes should be cleaned out. Some species, like black chickadees, will roost together in these boxes at night or on cold, windy days. For added comfort, consider adding a bit of dried grass or wood shavings and plug all air vent holes.

As gardeners, we also can utilize planting materials that provide berries, such as junipers. We can put off our fall clean-ups until spring when temperatures begin to rise. Perennials with seed heads, herbaceous shrubs that provide a windbreak from the cold and old rotting limbs can provide food and roosting sites for many species. Scatter seeds around these areas in case they cannot readily find the bird feeder. Leaves left on garden beds provide warmth and food for beneficial insects and amphibians.

Thank you to Tulsa County Master Gardeners for their expertise in this subject matter. Allen Robinson has been a Master Gardener since 2010. 

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