NYC Audubon Director of Research and Conservation Susan Elbin shares how birds are able to handle the more severe conditions of the winter season
After several recent snowstorms (with more predicted for this weekend), maybe some of us have been wondering about the birds: my feeders were full of birds, but now they are deserted. What do birds do in bad weather?
First let us reassure you: birds have been around for more than 60 million years! They have adapted to different climate regimes and have learned how to survive inclement weather. Most birds deal with the cold weather by migrating south. The birds that come to New York City or stay here through the winter have a variety of behaviors that keep them warm and dry. A few things they do:
- Fluff up their down feathers and keep their body feathers waterproof. Some birds molt additional down during the winter.
- Cover exposed skin with feathers. Some birds will tuck their bills under a wing or tuck one leg up close to its body. Some birds can stand on ice without freezing their feet because of specially adapted circulatory system called “counter current.”
- ‘Hunker down’ in a protected spot until the storm passes.
- Huddle! Birds will often sit close together – closer than they would in temperate weather.
- Produce their own body heat by shivering.
- Eat a lot of high-calorie food.
- Chill out: some birds slow down their metabolism and go into a state of torpor.
Unfortunately, despite all of these adaptations and behaviors, some birds don’t make it. While wintering birds have evolved to survive without the help of supplemental feeding by people, if you do feed the birds in the winter time, make sure to keep your feeders consistently stocked until spring. If you can provide fresh water, that’s all the better.