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Earth Gauge Tip of the Week: For the Birds

2/5/2014 10:43:00 AM

Tags: birds, wildlife, Earth Gauge, Washington D.C.


Do you ever wonder how the tiny birds hopping around your backyard and neighborhood stay warm during the winter? Weighing in at 10-25 grams – the weight of a few nickels – birds hardly seem like they’re fit for frigid temperatures. But winter residents in chilly parts of the U.S. have some smart strategies for surviving the cold:

Fill up on fat and calories. As far as a bird’s concerned, calorie-rich and fatty foods like sunflower seeds, nuts and suet are the best for providing energy to stay warm.

Find reliable water sources. Melting snow and ice for water uses up calories and body heat, so finding a reliable source of fresh, clean water is key. Heated bird baths make life much easier during winter.

Find shelter. Evergreen trees, brush piles, birdhouses and roost boxes provide a respite from wind and cold.

Fluff those feathers. Feathers help trap heat close to a bird’s body to maintain warmth.

Some birds can even enter “regulated hypothermia” to reduce calorie burn and conserve energy during cold weather. Black-capped chickadees – familiar winter feeder visitors – can drop their body temperature by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit at night! They also shiver to generate heat, which gets trapped in those fluffy feathers.

Viewer Tip

Give feathered friends a hand this winter by adding food and water sources to your yard, then sit back and enjoy some winter birdwatching. Providing a variety of feeders and foods will attract different species of birds – try suet, cracked corn, seeds and nuts. Once a few birds find your feast, others will likely follow. Providing a water source will also attract birds. Use a heated bird bath or place a bath in a sunny area where it’s less likely to freeze over. Don’t forget to clean feeders and baths regularly to prevent spreading disease, and remove old, wet seed that can breed bacteria.

Get more winter birding tips from National Wildlife Federation and read more tips of the week at Earth Gauge.

Photo: Black-capped chickadee image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

(Sources: Eldermire, C. “How Bird Survive the Cold: Feathers + Food = Warmth.” All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology,; Mayntz, M. “Make Winter Your Top Birding Season.” National Wildlife Federation,

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