Feathers + Food = Warmth?

14 02 2007

snowy cardinal

While sitting in my cozy house, furnace on, fleecewear engaged, and a cup of tea at my side, I could see the snow piling up outside the windows and a flash of dark wings every few seconds from near the birdfeeders. Temperatures hovered in the single digits since this morning, with wind chill below zero, and about a foot of snow had accumulated since I fell asleep last night. Those dark wings flashing by tugged at my conscience even upon awakening, motivating me to get out of bed and top off the sunflower and suet feeders that I provide for feathered visitors. And on days like today I am always astounded that there are any birds left alive, especially considering that most species common to central New York woodlands weigh somewhere in the vicinity of 10-25 grams (think of the weight of 2-5 nickels)!

So…When faced with sub-freezing conditions and 20-30 inches of snow, what’s a bird to do?

I would humbly suggest picking up a copy of

The Contemplative Nuthatch’s 5-Step Guide to Surviving the Winter

(illustrated & abridged version)

ATSP pair

1. Get some friends to hang out with, especially if the weather is crummy. Ever notice that nearly all of the birds that hang around in the winter do so in flocks? Having other birds around makes it less likely that something will eat you; more eyes = less chance of a predator sneaking up. Plus, if something does sneak up, you only have to be faster than the guy foraging next to you! Friends are also good at letting you know where the primo food is.



WBNU at suet

2. Eat. Park yourself in front of a feeder, some seedy plants, or anywhere there is food (preferably the heaviest, fattest foods possible, like black-oil sunflower and suet, yum!) and consume. If anyone gets in your way, pound them and keep eating–unless, of course, they pound you, in which case you should get out of the way. However, don’t eat too much, because it also makes you slower and more likely to get eaten.



BCCH snow

3. When you can’t eat more, get puffy and rest. Those down feathers are perfect for trapping a warm insulative layer of heat. If you get the chance, tuck a foot or a whole leg up in there. And if you’re a woodpecker–tough luck, because you don’t have any down feathers.



Downy hiding

4. Stay out of the wind. Here’s an important hint: if the wind is blowing, go to the other side of the tree and avoid it. Seems simple, right? But it works–trust me (or, if you can’t trust a nuthatch, perhaps you’d find solace in Dr. Grubb’s concisely titled 1977 treatise “Weather-dependent foraging behavior of some birds in a deciduous woodland: horizontal adjustmentsin .pdf form) .






the full monty



5. Roost in a cavity, if at all possible. You’ll never find a warmer spot to sleep than in your own down feathers, nestled in a nook so small that your tail feathers get bent! Old woodpecker cavities, crannies beneath the eaves of houses, even a tunnel in the snow…They’re all warmer than sticking it out in the unforgiving, willies-inducing darkness of night.



CAWR puff-snow

Finally, whenever possible, combine guidelines 1-4 for the ultimate in energy-saving & crop-filling goodness (steps 2-4 illustrated here by this fully puffed carolina wren, perched comfortably within bill’s reach of a larder full of peanuts and in the lee of the peanut feeder).

PS-To everyone who has inquired about the status of the pair of carolina wrens frequenting my feeders, they have persevered despite winter’s arrival, and appear to be roosting in a large downed tree in my backyard. Keep your fingers crossed…




8 responses

14 02 2007

Very cute post of your guidelines! Bravo!

14 02 2007

Thanks for the shout-out, mon@rch!

15 02 2007

funny survival guide – I can hear your tone of voice throughout

just thought you should know that in the JSTOR page in the “trust me” link, that’s the wrong Condor cover. The article is from 1999, before the Condor had decent photos on its cover… The picture is Martjan Lammertink’s great slaty woodpecker, from late 2004, if I’m not mistaken.

(Hey, what else is one supposed to do with that kind of trivia?) nice post…

15 02 2007

Thanks for the tip, Hugh; I’ve changed the link to the proper issue. Cheers!

17 02 2007

I’m glad I hopped over here from Mon@rchs blog. This is a great post and contains good info for me – new at birding. In my Feb. 16 post there were hundreds of cedar waxwings huddled side by side and I wondered if they were keeping each other warm and warding of predators. Now I’ll check out more of your blog!

17 02 2007

Great post! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for yours if you keep your fingers crossed for mine. I saw mine today.

10 09 2009

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

19 12 2009
Meredith Dunham Wilmot

This is a wonderful site — clever and informative. We are having a blizzard here in Maryland today, and I am intensely worried about our Carolina Wren population surrounding our home. Any tips on what we can do to help them while the snow is on the ground? We have suet and lots of feed out for the birds (Juncos, Cardinals, Bluejays, Starlings, Sparrows, Doves in great number) but the wrens are lying low somewhere.

Thanks for your good work!


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