The Wild Truth: Birds’ Winter Survival Tactics

Birds’ Winter Survival Tactics

A round of robins at
winter waterhole. Photo by Russ Bauman

By Winslow McCrory Umberger

While recent snowfalls slowed travel along our roadways, bird feeder traffic was brisk. Residents reported seeing hungry songbirds—jays, cardinals, finches, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers—clustered at feeders in a riot of colors that dazzled against the snowy landscape.

There’s a reason for this uptick in traffic. “Birds live on the edge of energetics during cold periods,” says Savannah Trantham, co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, “and snow-blanketed food and water sources put them at great risk.”

Why stick around in the first place? Why not opt for a sunny roost in the tropics? This is not as viable an option as it appears. “Flying long distances is energy-costly and could prove deadly,” says Trantham. “Many first-timers who don’t know the route as well may die during migration.”

Those who stay put have developed adaptations and strategies for building and maintaining their vital heat reserves. “Birds must produce their own heat which they do mostly via blood flow,” says Jeanette Schmitt, a volunteer licensed songbird rehabilitator of 44 years. Downy under feathers and waterproofed plumage retain heat, but feathers need to be kept dry so preening from the oil-producing gland at the base of their tails is essential. Puffed-up, clean feathers keep body heat from dissipating too quickly. Their legs and feet, which are bone and sinew covered in scales, are not as susceptible to the cold.

They also avoid doing highly energetic things, such as singing, nest building and defending territories. They focus on eating more—preferably higher energy food—which brings us to the importance of bird feeders in wintertime. “Bird diets are varied. It is important to offer a variety of fruits, seeds and proteins, such as mealworms, suet and peanut butter, in a range of feeder styles,” says Schmitt.

Each species has its own feeding style. Platform feeders, thistle socks, hoppers, cylinders and suet cages should be placed in areas that provide cover from predators. Not all birds will use hanging feeders so placing seeds in a large, round ground feeder serves a multitude of birds and mammals. “It is helpful to place an acrylic cover supported by wooden legs as added protection not only from weather but overhead predators as well,” says Schmitt.

Birds need water just as much as they need food. They can get dehydrated quickly. Heated birdbaths not only provide fresh liquid water but also are a simple way to keep feathers clean, essential for warmth and optimum flying ability. If you don’t have a heated element for the bath, you can put very warm water in the dish daily or more often, depending on the temperatures, to provide inner warmth.

Sadly, some birds will not survive the winter. The perils in nature must be accepted, but steps should be taken to ensure man is not contributing. For example, “it is important to keep feeders completely filled throughout winter and to make sure they stay dry and free of mold and bacteria. If birds eat contaminated morsels, it could lead to sickness and death,” advises Schmitt. Wild Birds Unlimited in Arden’s Gerber Village will clean bird feeders for a donation toward wildlife rehabilitation efforts.

If you find a bird in distress, a valuable resource is Appalachian Wildlife Refuge’s website at Click on the “Found an Animal” tab for guidance.

Appalachian Wild is a 501 (c) (3) organization providing aid to native wildlife as well as support for North Carolina’s volunteer wildlife rehabilitators. Find out more at

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