How Birds Survive in Winter Weather

How Birds Survive in Winter Weather

The winter season can be quite a knockout! From torrential downpours in the west to snow and ice in the east – everyone is up against some fierce competition dodging the elements. Every time we head outdoors, we need to consult the weather to ensure we’re properly bundled from head to toe in the necessary hats, jackets, footwear and other accessories that make winter tolerable. But you don’t see birds donning scarves or snuggling under blankets – so, how do our little, feathered friends manage?


While exact body temperatures vary from species to species, all wild birds have a higher body temperature than humans. Understandably, cold weather can make it difficult to maintain those high temperatures, especially for young or weak birds. Luckily, like other wildlife, birds are able to adapt and use their instincts to make it through the winter months.
Migration is one obvious way that birds manage the winter months. However, not all species do it – as you’ll realize by the numerous birds that stick around in your backyard even after the first snow hits. Here are four other ways birds adapt to the changing conditions of winter:

1. Feathers

Birds have a natural way to insulate themselves in the cold. That’s right – feathers are for more than just looking pretty! Their down feathers provide plenty of extra warmth that is necessary when the temperature drops. Many birds will even grow extra down feathers in the months leading up to winter so they are better prepared.

2. Preening

Wet feathers can prove disastrous in cold weather. But with the wet winter weather, how do birds stay dry? The answer lies in the oil-producing glands birds have. They preen to coat their feathers in this oil to waterproof and insulate their down feathers. In addition, you’ll often see birds fluffing their feathers to create air pockets that trap body heat to keep them warm.

3. Food

Birds have several food-related strategies to help them throughout winter. As you may have guessed, natural food sources become scarce in winter. One way birds attempt to prepare for this is by storing food while the weather is still warm – similar to how people may stock up on bread and milk before and milk before a big storm (French toast, anyone?). Birds like the Black-capped Chickadee can remember hundreds of spots where they have stored food so they can find it quickly later.

Another way birds adapt in winter is to change their diet. Most birds will opt for higher energy foods such as suet and black oil sunflower seed when temperatures begin to drop. The additional energy boost allows birds to generate more body heat to keep warm.

4. Torpor

While many animals hibernate during winter, some species of birds go into torpor. This hibernation-like state allows birds to lower their body temperature and heart rate to conserve body heat. Like hibernation, it helps them to survive the cold temperatures of winter. However, this seemingly lifeless state can make them more vulnerable to predators and other emergencies because reaction times are slower.


In 2010, determined America’s Top 10 Worst Winter Weather Cities by calculating the average annual temperature, average precipitation and average snowfall of the country’s 50 largest cities over a 30-year period. While this doesn’t take less populous areas of the country into account, it’s a good indicator of which states face the most extreme conditions (i.e. the places that are harshest for birds in winter). Some of the cities on the list may surprise you:

  • Cleveland, OH
  • Boston, MA
  • New York City, NY
  • Milwaukee, WI
  • Chicago, IL
  • Minneapolis, MN
  • Indianapolis, IN
  • Columbus, OH
  • Detroit, MI
  • Baltimore, MD

Other locations commonly noted for their harsh winter weather by the Farmer’s Almanac include Casper, WY; and Duluth, MN; Syracuse, NY. If you live in these areas, it’s important to take extra care to help the birds that reside nearby. There are plenty of ways to help, and your local birds are sure to appreciate the assistance.

cardinal in snow


Now that you have a better understanding of the tough conditions birds are under when winter strikes, you’re probably wondering what you can do to help! You’re in luck – we’ve come up with a few simple ways to give your backyard birds a boost. Best of all, an abundance of safe and happy birds means plenty of great winter bird watching for you!

1. Feed Them

Some experts suggest it is not necessary to put out food for our feathered friends, but hobbyists and enthusiasts alike beg to differ. But, as mentioned earlier, other food sources such as insects and plants become scarce. Keep your bird feeders stocked all winter long to ensure that non-migratory birds have a reliable food source.

If you’re not sure where to start, pay attention to which birds stick around when winter is approaching and find out what their favorite foods are. For general cold weather bird feeding, it’s best to offer high calorie and high-fat foods such as suet, Nyjer® thistle, and black oil sunflower seed. These will help your resident birds maintain their body heat throughout the long winter months.

2. Provide Water

Water is important for birds year round. In the summer, birds have access to a variety of natural water sources – ponds, puddles, streams and so on. But in winter, many of those sources become unavailable because they often freeze. So what can you do to fight Mother Nature?

Provide birds with a reliable water source so they can grab a drink as needed. While any water can freeze in winter, you can more easily control your own sources than a pond or puddle. Try adding a bird waterer or shallow dish of water to your backyard. To prevent freezing, bring them in at night and refill with fresh water each day. If you don’t want to monitor water sources daily, consider investing in a heated birdbath that won’t freeze over in cold conditions.

3. Add Shelter

Just like food and water, an adequate shelter can be more difficult to find during winter. One obvious way to offer shelter to your feathered friends is to put up a birdhouse. These can help keep birds warm and out of inclement weather. However, not all species of birds use birdhouses.

Another way to provide shelter to resident birds is to plant evergreen shrubs and trees around your yard. Unlike some trees and plants that die or lose their leaves when it gets cold, evergreens offer cover for birds year round. Having a few of these plants around your property will ensure birds have plenty of safe places to escape to when inclement weather strikes.

Birds are amazing and resilient creatures that give us plenty of entertainment in every month of the year. That’s why it’s important to do our part when they're facing a difficult time. Tell us how you’re helping your backyard birds this winter and share your pictures the next time you visit our Facebook page.

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