Birds are amazing creatures, descendants of dinosaurs they say, just look at their feet. The avian or bird population that interests me at this time of year are those right outside my snow lined window. Their sweet feathered bodies bring color and life to an otherwise dormant world. They are little comedians as they look at me or peek about at the inside of my office.
Winter for birds is from October thru March. The days grow shorter as temperatures drop. Some choose to migrate south as others brave the winter. The birds you find at your feeders often depends on where you live, what your yard looks like and the weather. To survive the winter our feathered friends require food, water and shelter, their anatomy does the rest.
Birds that commonly over winter in northern Michigan are: House Finches, House Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskens, Downy Woodpeckers, Black Capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinal, Dark-Eyed Juncos, American Robin and European Starlings. I also see ducks, swans, and loons swimming in the icy bay. I have noticed ducks under birdfeeders on front lawns near the bay. In the very early spring they will come to my yard and clean up around the deer block.
The winter activities of the bird differ from those they participate in during warmer times. These changes are to conserve energy. The birds stop singing. Singing requires a great deal of energy. I have noticed the quiet of winter and then one day in late February I will hear my first song bird…I love it. Nests are not maintained, eggs are not laid and chicks are not cared for. Winter is a time for self preservation.
The birds first defense to cold and wind is their down. Down are small under feathers the bird fluff up to create air pockets trapping body heat thus keeping them warm. The bird preen their feathers with oil from a special gland in their body to keep the feathers dry. If the feathers get wet the bird will most likely not survive.
Seeking cover in birdhouses, evergreen trees or in tree cavities help the bird to shield itself from the cold and wind. Oddly enough cavities of live trees are warmer than those in dead trees. Each fall I clean my birdhouses, removing massive nests, for the birds to use in the winter. I believe one of my decorative birdhouses is being used by a mouse this winter, it is full of fluff. Birds will collect in these areas together keeping each other warm. They also shiver, an experience I never found pleasant, creating heat from muscle movement.
Anatomically, the bird’s leg is the opposite of ours, the knee bending to the back. When a birds lands on a branch this allows the feet to naturally grasp the branch without effort. That is why birds can sleep in trees. Their feet are covered with scales and are mostly bone and sinew, there is little tissue that can be damaged by the cold. Birds can also hold a branch with one foot enabling them to tuck the other under their down.
Birds are endothermic meaning they get their heat from their surroundings. They do not store fat to use as energy as it would be very difficult to fly. Most birds that arrive at our feeders weigh between 10 – 25 grams or the weight of two nickles. If a bird finds itself in difficulty it can lower their heart rate and metabolism thus saving energy.
Preparations for winter are made by most over wintering birds. Some birds collect food during the warmer seasons and hide it for later. This is called caching. I once found a small bird’s nest low in a tree with three peanuts in it. This is a great idea but not dependable. Who says the bird that saved it will eat it.
Birds change their diet from insects and berries to seeds and berries. Some lucky birds enjoy the dormant insects they find tucked into the bark of trees but these are few and far between. There are berries left on plants such as juniper berries, crab apples and asparagus.
Caching and finding berries and seeds are not enough to keep the birds healthy over the winter, they need our help. For over a century people have been feeding birds, today it is big business. A great variety of bird feed is available in grocery stores, quick marts, feed mills and specialty stores. Feeders come in every shape and size. One can accessorize their feeding station almost as much as you can your car.
Place your birdfeeders out of the wind. The east or southeast side of the house or near a bank of trees are ideal locations. If possible offer roosting places.
The food we offer birds should be high in fat and calories as they will quickly convert this fat and calories into energy. Oil sunflower seeds are one of the best seeds for this. Suet filled with seeds brings great joy. I personally buy a mix of seed in the no mess form. No mess seeds have had the hulls removed so only viable seeds falls to the ground. I always thought the millet that fell to the ground was wasted seed until I was told certain birds, such as the juncos only feed from the ground. I began to watch and sure enough that was their meal as well as the local bunny. Peanuts and peanut butter are also good sources of energy. There are many homemade feeders that can be made from these materials…..google it.
Finally, birds need water even with piles of snow around. It takes more energy to warm cold water in the body than warm. There are heated bird baths for winter water. The birds know not to get their feet or feathers wet using the water only for drinking. Although I had a group of doves that liked to perch on the rim as it was heated. They knew how to warm their feet.