are birds cold in the winter

One place most birds dont have feathers: their feet. Bird feet are designed to withstand the cold, consisting mostly of tendons and bones with a small amount of muscle. Certain species, particularly larger birds that live near or on the water, will occasionally balance on one leg while tucking the other into their feathers for warmth. Smaller birds often crouch for coverage.

Make a commitment to support Audubon in urging decision-makers to pay attention to science and pursue climate solutions.

Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and other birds frequently return to feeders in the fall. Every time they travel, the birds take seeds or peanuts with them, storing them for a time when resources are limited. Up to 80,000 seeds can be stored by a single chickadee, and it can recall their locations.

Feathers are amazing for many reasons, but apart from keeping birds warm, they also keep them dry because they repel water. A base layer of tiny, downy feathers beneath retains body heat and keeps cold air out. Colder climates can also cause birds to grow thicker coats of plumage.

When temperatures drop, it’s common to see a puffy-eyed Northern Cardinal, but how precisely does that help them stay warm? When birds puff up, hundreds of air pockets are created between their feathers, trapping heat and maximizing their natural insulation.

How Do Birds Survive Winter?

are birds cold in the winter

Birds and winter. Courtesy of Amanda Frank, Unsplash

It’s amazing birds survive the winter when the temperature drops and the ground begins to freeze. By providing food, we can assist our garden birds in gaining much-needed weight, but what about all the birds we are unable to see?

Thousands of species of birds have adapted to live in some of the strangest and most hostile environments on Earth.

storks have hollow bones in their legs to help lift their massive frames off the ground when flying, pelicans have enormous pouches in which to store so much fish, and toucans use their enormous bills to thermoregulate the intense heat of the rainforests. It makes sense that they would have mastered the winter as well.

are birds cold in the winter

As is well known, a large number of bird species migrate south or west for the winter in search of warmer climates. Certain species will travel to areas that we might consider to be fairly cold, but in comparison to their potential home, the icy estuaries of East Anglia, UK, are tropical paradises.

However, some birds are referred to as resident birds because they never leave their homes. These birds have exchanged the dangers of migration—like being blown into the ocean by a storm, being hunted by humans or animals on the way, or simply becoming exhausted—for a whole new kind of struggle—the bitter cold—in order to maintain their hard-won territories throughout the year.

While many wild mammals hibernate or grow thicker coats, humans dress more, adjust the thermostat a few degrees, and do other things, resident birds remain in the same outdoor locations, wear the same feathers, and perform daily tasks. Therefore, birds must find solutions to two issues in order to survive winter: finding enough food and staying warm enough.

Since most wild birds naturally have body temperatures around 105?°F, or 40?°C, which is considerably higher than ours, any drop in temperature outside seems even colder to them than it does to us.

When you consider that their food supplies are sadly depleted just when they are most needed, the fact that they can endure a single winter, let alone several, is an incredible testament to their tenacity.

Courtesy of Buntysmum, Pixabay

Birds must use a variety of strategies and specialized adaptations to get past these barriers and reach the warmth of spring. To begin with, their feathers serve a much more useful purpose than just being attractive or aiding in flight; they are excellent heat traps.

The majority of a bird’s body is covered in a thick layer of down, a unique type of feather that is highly valued in our pillows, sleeping bags, jackets, and the envy of technical outdoor clothing manufacturers worldwide. Down is found underneath the longer exterior feathers of birds.

Through a process called ptiloerection, birds can “puff these up,” giving the impression that they are larger than they actually are. Instead, they have simply pushed the finer filaments out of their bodies and spread them out, allowing the heat from their interior to escape.

are birds cold in the winter

This fluffy barrier captures air pockets near the body, which are then heated by the bird’s internal radiation of warmth, astonishingly holding on to 90% of its core temperature. While down feathers are present in most birds, we are more likely to see them in waterfowl that are raised for our manufactured comfort and warmth because ducks and geese produce large amounts of down to keep their skin warm in freezing water.

Many birds do not have feathers on their legs or feet; instead, they let their feet cool down to nearly the same temperature as the surface they are standing on. By using their tiny feet, birds are able to avoid freezing to death thanks to a process called counter-current exchange.

Instead, birds’ feet have evolved to consist primarily of bones, tendons, and extremely thin-walled blood vessels in the skin that pass incredibly close to each other. This is because any heat lost from the body to the extremities would need to be instantly replaced, which would be impossible to maintain throughout the winter.

The warm blood that leaves the body through the blood vessels that supply the legs and feet merely warms the cool blood that is being transported away from the feet, returning heat to the feet.

Courtesy of Blalonde, Wikimedia Commons

Huddling together is another method that birds, especially smaller ones like long-tailed tits, sparrows, and chickadees, preserve their heat, especially at night.

They group together to form a line or a ball in order to decrease their surface area to volume ratio. Throughout the night, they will compete for position because the ones at the outer edges of the line lose more heat than the ones in the middle.

After spending the majority of the year by themselves or in pairs for breeding, wrens will gather in groups of five or more during the winter to share heat, occasionally reaching sixty.

Many birds, including owls, treecreepers, most of the tit family, woodpeckers, and thrushes, will also seek out cavities in trees, rock faces or quarries, or snags and rotten holes in logs to spend the night in.

It’s possible that you’ve noticed a lot of woodlandbirds disappearing during the winter. This is because they’ve moved farther inside to avoid the chilly winds at the exposed edges, but it’s also more likely that food has survived in the warmer, darker, deeper interior.

If there is no food, then none of the strategies used are meaningful. Planting trees and flowers that can supply those necessary ingredients in the form of seeds, nuts, or even insects in the autumn and through to the winter is crucial because birds require a steady supply of fatty and high-protein foods to survive the winter.

are birds cold in the winter

Many birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, juncos, and jays, will cache this food during the summer and fall, usually remembering most, if not all, of the hiding spots.

Sharp-billed birds, such as starlings, can still burrow into tree bark to find lifeforms that have buried themselves there to stay warm. Some birds also migrate from summer fruit to winter seeds that are high in oil.

In the winter, birds essentially exist day to day because it is so counterproductive for them to use energy to find food when night falls and temperatures drop even lower. Nevertheless, many of them will shiver to create heat and stay warm, just like humans do.

Almost all of the calories gained during the day are used up by this alone, so the cycle starts over at dawn.

You can make a huge difference in their ability to survive this winter by making sure they have access to plenty of food and fresh water.

The more of us that take that action, the less strain we put on all other “non-garden” birds. As self-serving as it may sound, you will also enjoy some fantastic birdwatching in the winter from the cozy (smug?) comfort of your own house.

Please try again. Thank you for your support. Please follow us on our social media channels.


About the author: Our writer and researcher for the Bird Buddy blog is Sim Wood. She is currently remodeling her Slovenian property with her spouse and making do without a plan. She is also proficient in 72 bird species’ calls and songs. Favorite bird: shoebill.


How cold is too cold for birds?

Birds (especially larger parrots) can generally tolerate temperatures as low as the 50s, but once the thermometer drops below that, they may get fluffed up (expending all of their energy trying to trap warm air between their feathers and their bodies to keep warm) and stop eating.

Do birds stay warm in the winter?

Birds retain heat in their body core by fluffing out their feathers. Chickadees may appear to be twice as fat in winter as in summer. But they aren’t. They are merely puffed up, thickening the insulation around their bodies.

Can birds live outside in winter?

So, to survive winter, birds need to solve two problems: staying warm enough and finding enough food. The majority of wild birds have quite high natural body temperatures, even higher than ours, at around 105°F, or 40°C, so any lower outside temperature seems even colder to them than it does to us.

What do birds do when it snows?

Seek Shelter Because many birds are so tiny, even tucking against the trunk of a tree can be good shelter from the worst wind, driving rain, or stinging snow. Birds will seek out hidden cavities or nestle under branches, brush, or other shelter to keep out of bad weather.