Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Tips to Help Birds Survive the Colder Weather
October 20, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     In addition to the pine siskin and red-breasted nuthatch invasion that I spoke about last week, evening grosbeaks are showing up at area feeders. Unlike the flocks of old that used to clean out my tray of sunflower before I could get out of bed in the morning, only sporadic reports of a few grosbeaks so far. Peabody, Rowley and Essex have had one to three birds at feeders, but more are likely to show up in the area this year, along with other winter finches.

     Juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows are migrating through. The latter two are feeding on millet under our outside store feeders. With the recent cold nights that we have had I think that our catbird has finally headed south. Many other migrants have left for warmer climates. Despite the migration, many backyard birds, including cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers will stay and endure our New England winter.

     So how do birds survive the harsh New England winters? Birds have a number of ways of dealing with the cold. The most obvious way is that they have feathers. Feathers have the means of trapping air pockets which insulate birds against the cold. Birds, like humans, also shiver when they are cold, generating short-term heat. Birds also roost together, sleeping against each other to keep each other warm.

     Even with these tricks, birds still struggle to survive the cold. People can help birds through the cold and harsh weather. Providing birds with high calorie foods, a heated birdbath, and places to roost will help them survive the cold late fall nights and the winter months.

     The high activity at feeders already indicates that the natural food supply is low out there this year. Natural food such as insects, berries and seeds, becomes more scarce as colder months enshroud us. The best seed that you can have available for the seed eating birds like cardinals and chickadees is black-oil sunflower. These seeds have thinner shells than striped sunflower and provide a higher oil content, making them more efficient and nutritious food for birds in the colder months. Sunflower hearts, without the shell, provide even more energy per bite.

     For finches, thistle and sunflower hearts are high in calories, which helps birds store fat and keep them warm during the colder months. With goldfinches, pine siskins, and possibly redpolls visiting us this winter, these foods will help attract them, and provide the nurishment they need to get through our winter. For woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and many other birds, suet and nuts are great food that provides high calories and fat, and won’t freeze during the winter.

     As temperatures start dropping below freezing at night, now is the time to think about adding a heated bird to your yard. There is a variety of de-icers that can be placed in any bird bath to keep water open during the cold fall and winter nights. Baths with built-in heaters are the way to go if you don’t already own a birdbath. Today’s models of heated birdbaths and de-icers are low wattage and thermostatically controlled, so they don’t use much electricity.

     Providing spots where birds can roost at night is another way to help them huddle together and stay warm away from predators. Evergreen thickets in your yard is one way to provide roosting shelter. Many birds huddle together in nesting boxes at night to get out of the harsh weather. There are also roosting boxes that are like nesting boxes, but the have the hole at the bottom and the top seals in the heat. These often have perches inside to accommodate many birds. Roosting pockets made of straw and other grass-like materials also serve as insulated havens for birds at night.

     So remember to start filling your feeders with seed and suet if you haven’t done so already. As the cold months take hold of our area, the birds will thank you with their colorful presence on those cold, dreary days.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
Like us on Facebook! www.facebook.com/birdwatcherssupply