Feathered Friends Feel the Freeze: How to Help Birds Survive Winter

by Aimee Clayton, Staff Assistant

Although the ground is cold (and possibly covered in snow), winter doesn’t mean hibernation and hiding for all wild animals, especially for some of the more common creatures you’ll see this time of year: the birds.

Birds prepare as best as they can for the cold but can still have difficulties finding adequate food, water and shelter. This is why Willowbrook Wildlife Center encourages people to provide these much-needed resources to help out our feathered friends.

In spring and summer, bird feeders are popular in many backyards, where morning visits from resident blue jays and migrating warblers are always fun. In fall, feeders provide places for some birds to fill up on their way south. But in winter, after most plants and bugs have died or gone dormant, stocked feeders provide the nourishing diets — and extra calories — birds need to stay warm. Suet, black-oil sunflower, safflower and unsalted peanuts are all good types of feed to use this time of year because they’re high in fat, which provides a great source of energy.

In spring and summer, birds have an abundance of plants they can use for shelter, but in winter they rely on other adaptations. Many grow additional feathers, which give added insulation and the ability to maintain body heat more efficiently. Black-capped chickadees and other social species keep warm by roosting together. But people can help, too. Adding a nest box or two to your yard gives birds a place to rest and get out of the cold. Keep one up year-round? Just remember to remove debris left over from the breeding season so wintering birds have a clean place to move in.

The rarest winter resource, though, is the most crucial for survival. To no one’s surprise, it’s difficult for birds to find water when it starts to freeze, but they need water not only to stay hydrated but also to clean up between flights. Birds with access to fresh water can adequately preen themselves more often, which means their insulating feathers can function better, keeping them warmer and healthier. Putting a heated bird bath in your yard filled with fresh water can give birds a boost, but so can breaking up ice in existing bird baths and keeping them full.

Here at Willowbrook Wildlife Center we rely heavily on the community to help us make a difference for wildlife. In winter, providing a few extra rest stops for food, water and shelter can mean a better chance of survival for our feathered friends. They’re little things we can all do that can make major contributions to the conservation of native wild birds.
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