Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Birds Struggle To Survive Cold
February 10, 2023
by Steve Grinley
Last week’s cold snap was a struggle for many of us. The minus 11 degree reading overnight at home was the coldest I can remember in my lifetime. Our home’s heating system couldn’t keep up with the record low temperature.
It was also particularly hard on the birds. They seem to know when a front is approaching as they flocked to the feeders in the days before, fueling up to sustain them through the worst of it. It seems that they can predict the weather with more certainty than our best-trained meteorologists. We had tens of pine siskins and goldfinches taking up every available perch on our finch feeders and devouring the sunflower heart seeds as fast as we could fill the other feeders.
Birds are supplementing their natural food with the seed and suet at feeders. The availability of feeder-food makes it a bit easier for them, especially right after a storm when natural seed supplies may be covered with snow or caked in ice. Rain and snow can be blown horizontally and then freeze and clog the best of feeders. Scrape away any snow or ice, especially from the perch areas and around the feeding ports on the feeders. We also have to scrape the ice off the suet and hanging seed cakes.
In addition to seed and suet, you can put out some fruit for the fruit eating birds including robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds. We put our mealworms for our Carolina wrens. If you have plantings in your yard such as crab apple, winterberry or holly, cedar waxwings or wintering hermit thrushes or catbirds might also feast on the natural fruit. I recall a couple in the area that once had a western tanager eating apple, oranges and sunflower hearts at their feeders, and this western visitor survived a nor’easter with their help.
If you have a heated bird bath, many birds will flock to it as fresh water becomes more unavailable with these frigid temperatures. Even birds that don’t normally visit feeders may take advantage of the open water. Our titmice and goldfinches are particularly fond of our heated bath.
In the depths of a long, cold New England night or at the height of a storm, birds seek shelter wherever they can find it. Some choose thickets, brush piles, evergreens, rhododendron, or other sheltering shrubs and trees. Some will crowd into cavities in trees, building and other structures to keep warm.
You can help the birds by putting up roosting boxes or roosting pockets where birds can huddle to stay warm. Birds also use nesting boxes for roosting, so if you have bird houses around your yard that you have left up for the winter, these will provide added shelter at night for the birds. You can add dried grasses, cotton, or dryer lint to the boxes to add further insulation for the birds.
A West Newbury resident had a bird-cam in one of her bluebird nesting boxes that she monitored during the spring and summer. She kept the nesting box up during the winter but had rolled up the cord from the camera to store from the winter. She saw the bluebirds checking out the box one frigid week and decided to hook the camera back up to her TV. Because the camera had infrared, she could watch what transpired in the house at night.
The first night, five bluebirds were jockeying for position in the bird house, fighting one another until two got expelled. She watched the remaining three bluebirds hunker down for the night. She watched the next night and all five bluebirds came to terms, huddling together in the one box. They must have figured out that the body heat of five was better than three!
When we watch our feeders after a frigid night, or after a storm goes by, we realize that the storm may have taken its toll. But the numbers of birds seems to remain fairly constant. It is always great to see our regular visitors emerge after a cold night or storm to partake of the seed and suet that we always provide.