The winter storm we experienced last weekend sure left a lot of snow behind. Schools shut down, the courthouse closed, and people were advised to stay inside until the roads were clear again.
Being housebound in the throes of a heavy snowfall has its advantages. But as you looked out the windows to keep track of the deepening white stuff, did you notice a flurry of activity around your backyard birdfeeders–even more than usual?
I sure did. The birds were really hungry!
As we see the birds bustling about the seed and suet feeders, we realize how important it is to offer supplemental feed to help them survive. Choosing the right foods for the various bird species is critical, so use a good variety seed mixture. A good mix will list cracked corn, thistle, sunflower seed, and white proso first on the label. Avoid the economy mixes that are heavy with milo, rice, oats, and wheat–the birds tend to pass these by. Thistle feeders or seed sacks will support a number of finches. Suet, fat, and nuts will attract many colourful carnivorous birds such as woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, nuthatches, and chickadees. When the trees are bare and the ground is blanketed with snow, seeds and insects can sure be hard to find.
It's also always a good idea to provide fresh water daily. Immersion heaters for bird baths are available just for this purpose from your local hardware or feeder supply store. You can also simply remove the ice and refill it with fresh water each day in whatever receptacle you choose. (Try to avoid metal bowls since their little feet can freeze to the rim in extreme cold.) Birds will get their water naturally by consuming snow or drinking from moving streams, but we help them out when we provide liquid so they don't have to expend extra body heat to melt the snow once they ingest it.
Why do birds puff up and shiver in cold weather?
Birds that looked puffed up are actually fluffing their feathers. This increases the "dead-air" space between the feathers and the skin which traps warmth and helps retain body heat, sometimes increasing it by as much as 30%. Birds actually grow more feathers in winter too, because the more feathers, the more fluffing up they can do!
Birds shiver in winter to increase their body temperature as well, in a process known as thermogenosis. It's an almost constant behavior and helps them produce heat up to five times their normal rate in order to maintain their naturally high body temperature. Because it burns lots of calories, they must flock to the feeders each day to replenish their small fat reserves, which can only last about 24 hours.
Why don't birds' feet freeze in winter?
All birds have the ability to reduce heat loss by restricting the flow of warm blood into their legs and feet. Because their legs are mostly scales, sinews, and bones, there's very little to freeze. The arteries and veins in a bird's legs are right next to each other, so the warmth from the arteries warms up the blood in the veins before it re-enters the body, thus the bird's body stays warm. If our feet were that cold, we'd swear they were frozen, but it's not a hardship for the birds.
Feeding the birds can be a great way to bring them in closer so we can get a wintry glimpse of nature right through our frosty windows. It's a win-win- situation. We enjoy the antics of delightful, colourful social creatures while they get a regular source of nourishment without working hard for it, a reliable supplement to their natural foods. Our feeders are vital in times of heavy snow and ice, and in such hard times, may literally be the difference between life and death.
The next time you freeze your fingers and toes stomping through all that crust snow to fill the feeder, be warmed by the fact that your feathered little friends may just make it to tomorrow because you made sure they didn't go to bed hungry today.