Winter woes for our feathered friends – what you can do!The record cold snap with which we dealt at the beginning of 2018 brought to mind the role we humans can play in helping out our local wildlife when needed. Many species of animals adjust to their environment; you may have noticed that the white-tailed deer, for example, get thicker coats to help insulate against the cold.Many birds migrate in the autumn to find the ideal climate in which to spend the winter. Others, like the Carolina wren, stay in one area year-round and can withstand temperature changes. Occasionally, however, all the birds are surprised by severely frigid weather for which they are not entirely prepared.
So what strategies do they use to stay warm? You may have noticed some birds that usually look fairly slender now suddenly look like puffballs; the yellow-rumped warbler and European starling seen here are examples. Fluffing their feathers helps them trap warmer air near the body. Large birds such as geese may grow extra downy feathers near their skin. Many birds such as Carolina chickadees put on an extra layer of fat which acts as insulation.
At night, the birds may find nest boxes in which to roost as a group or alone. They will also seek out dense foliage, wood piles and sheltered areas to get out of the wind and cold air, sometimes bunching together and tucking in their heads and feet to minimize body parts exposed to the cold temperatures. Placing feeders near shrubs and bushes gives them somewhere to shelter between feedings and to hide if a predator comes by, like this red-shouldered hawk.
Some birds can regulate their body temperature, lowering it in the evening to achieve a state of hypothermia that allows them to use up less energy. Hummingbirds can even go into torpor. These strategies have limits, however. Birders who were keeping hummingbirds well fed with heated nectar stations in North and South Carolina unfortunately reported that some of these birds froze to death in the first cold 2018 days.
So what can we do to help the birds out? Putting out (extra) bird seed is the most obvious aid. Mixed seed and sunflower seeds are popular; dried mealworms and suet are especially valued by manyspecies when the temperature plummets.
It is important to clean the feeders and squirrel or raccoon baffles often because diseases can be passed on if this is not done. When we had a couple warmer days after very low temperatures, I washed the baffles and this bluebird slipped and slid while trying to grab suet that had fallen on a not-yet-dry baffle!
Although birds that regularly feed on the ground, such as Eastern towhees, white- throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, will go to a feeder, it is nice to throw out some seed on the earth or on top of the ice and snow so they can get a meal. The chipmunks and squirrels may compete with them but it makes the feeders a little less crowded.
Putting a heating element in your birdbath is a welcome addition to winter care as the birds can’t get a drink anywhere when the temperatures freeze over ponds, streams, creeks (and even lakes). If you don’t have one of those, you can put out shallow dishes that you replenish often with warmer water but, if the day is very cold, you might need to do that often. When temperatures rise a bit, some birds will get their moisture from melting snow, like this robin and cedar waxwings.
You can also leave leaf litter in your yard rather than raking it all up and having it carted off for mulch. Insects burrow down into the leaves for the winter and you can see birds scratching around looking for them. Wood piles (fallen branches and twigs) can offer shelter that is much appreciated, too.
Below are some articles that go into more detail about the strategies in case you decide to help out our feathered friends (as well as insects and mammals) this winter. I hope you decide to do so!
http://www.audubon.org/how-do- birds-cope- cold-winter
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/how-birds- survive-the- cold-feathers- food-warmth/
https://www.consumerreports.org/lawn-care/for- the-greenest- yard-leave- the-leaves-behind/
Maria de Bruyn is a nature photographer who enjoys observing all types of animals and plants and sharing her findings with others. She has donated her photos to non-profits such as the Friends of Sandy Creek Park, the Outdoor Explorer Book Club and New Hope Audubon Society and has had exhibitions of her work in various venues. She writes a blog (https://mybeautifulworldblog.com/), serves as a virtual “ranger” for Project Noah (http://www.projectnoah.org/organisms), and is a co-vice president of the Chapel Hill Bird Club (http://chbc.carolinanature.com/). You can contact her at: email@example.com.