For the Birds: Winter’s Cold and the Living Is Hard

Monday, January 13, 2020

Pileated woodpecker
Photo by craig kerns

Reprinted from November 2014
By Christine Southwick

Birds used to have lots of dense native habitats into which they could hunker down during cold spells.

These habitats provided shelter, food, and water.

The leading cause of avian deaths and the decline of many species is habitat elimination due to development, whether it be housing, commercial expansion, mining, or diversion of water. 

Therefore, it seems fitting that we help birds (and other pollinators and wildlife) by providing food, shelter, and usable water, especially during cold weather.

If you see a bird all fluffed up it is trying to stay warm by creating warm air pockets around its body with its feathers.


Blackcapped chickadee fluffed up to keep warm
Photo by craig kerns


For all warm-blooded creatures, fuel in the form of calories is needed to create warmth.

High-energy black-oil sunflower seeds, suet, and good quality shelled-seeds can provide the margin between survival and death. 

Feeders offer quick, certain sources of good calories, allowing birds to conserve their calories for warmth, not expending energy searching for their next meal.

Watch your feeders for clumping of seeds during damp weather. 

If seeds clump, throw the seed out and wash the feeders with 10% bleach, rinse well, and dry before filling; or use cheap feeders and replace feeders when dirty.

Fox Sparrow and Spotted Towhee drawn to usable water
Photo by Christine Southwick

If you feed hummingbirds, winter is an important time to feed them. Anna’s eat more bugs than any other North American hummingbird, but freezing temperatures kill the bugs, so nectar is important. Even though they go into torpor (they slow their heart rate and breathing), they still need lots of quick energy early in the morning, and late in the evening. 

Song Sparrow with part of bath warmer shown behind it
Photo by Christine Southwick

One of the best ways to keep their feeders liquid is to wrap non-LED Christmas lights around the feeder, making sure that the ports are easily accessed. 

This method allows them to come whenever they want to, without worrying about missing a much needed visit.

For liquid water, invest in a birdbath warmer (with an automatic thermostat). Wild Birds Unlimited in Lake Forest Park has them, and Seattle Audubon on 35th Street sells them too. 

Liquid water is hard to find since so many creeks and rivulets have been diverted into drainpipes.

Give your yard birds a fighting chance. Create shelter, and safe places for them to nestle down, provide liquid water and food during the winter, and they will reward you with bubbly songs and bug elimination in the spring.



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