For the Birds: Birds have many strategies to survive long, cold winters, by Chris Bosak

Junco

Chris Bosak

A junco stands on snow near a feeding station last winter.

Birds would fare just fine without human interventions such as bird feeders, birdhouses and birdbaths. They were, after all, here long before we were.

Even in the most extreme cold conditions, such as those we experienced last week and will certainly feel again soon, birds would do just fine without us. Without a doubt, the aforementioned human interventions make birds’ lives easier in the winter. Feeders are an easy source of energy, birdhouses offer refuge from the wind and heated birdbaths are a water source when everything else is frozen.

But, still, the majority of birds would survive even without those things. But how? They are small, delicately built (seemingly) and exposed to the elements. They are not, however, defenseless. They have plenty of strategies to survive the extremes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

They know to seek shelter. When a driving wind accompanies cold temperatures, you won’t find birds out in the open. A hungry bird or two may brave the wind to visit a feeder briefly, but for the most part, birds hunker down.

That’s when birdhouses come in handy. Birdhouses should be cleaned after the nesting season for sanitary reasons and to make room for birds in the winter. Old woodpecker holes are utilized as well. I once saw a chickadee huddled in the corner of an eave during a snow storm. It was so small and still I almost missed it.

I have a sizable brush pile in my backyard and junco and white-throated sparrows love it. They use it to hide from predators under normal conditions and hunker deep in the crevices during cold, windy weather.

Birds will often huddle together in these shelters, too, for extra warmth.

Many birds will also puff up their feathers to trap warm air near their bodies and keep cold air away. Some tiny birds such as chickadees and white-throated sparrows look almost comical with their feathers puffed up as if they are trying to look big and tough. Not that the birds really care what I think about them, especially when it’s 10 degrees out.

Birds do not hibernate, at least not really. They do sometimes enter a state of torpor, a temporary hibernation-like state in which their body temperature lowers and their metabolism slows. Shivering is another strategy employed by birds to retain heat.

Surviving extreme temperatures and blustery snowstorms is all part of the risk our year-round birds take by forgoing migration.

Migration is fraught with danger. There are buildings to crash into, exhaustion to fight, predators to avoid, and hundreds of miles to navigate without getting lost.

Staying in New England has its challenges, too, as I mentioned above.

For me, I appreciate our year-round birds immensely. Winter is long and dark in New England and I can’t image how dreary it would be without our chickadees, blue jays and other year-round birds.

For the Birds runs Mondays in The Sentinel. Chris Bosak may be reached at chrisbosak26@gmail.com or through his website www.birdsofnewengland.com

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