Helping Birds in Winter

Learn how birds in winter are battling and surviving in extreme conditions, and find out what you can do to help them.

It should have been spring, but winter clung to the landscape like a woodpecker to a treetop on a windy day. The snow refused to melt, and more kept falling across interior Alaska.

Eventually it began to run off into the creeks and rivers. The first migrant birds arrived, held up in their journey by the late spring. I spotted waterfowl and raptors first, followed by the first songbirds—American robins and dark-eyed juncos. I knew the others, the warblers and sparrows, wouldn’t be far behind.

And then, like a tantrum, winter came rushing back. Cold wind tore down from the north, carrying snow and ice that fell in clouds. Feeders were emptied of seed in minutes, and songbirds lay like rugs on the few patches of open ground.

The birds hunkered down on roadsides and partly cleared fields, foraging for what little food they could find and waiting for the weather to clear. Eventually it did, and the migrants lifted again to the air to continue
on their paths north.

A Dangerous Life for Birds in Winter

As much as I admired those birds that fought and prevailed, I couldn’t help but think of the tens of thousands that didn’t make it. Let’s face it—migratory birds are up against a lot. Not only do they fly thousands of miles across continents and oceans (twice a year!), they have to survive hawks and owls, outdoor cats, habitat loss, windows, power lines and other man-made hazards. Each of these takes its toll, but severe weather at the wrong time and place can be devastating.

Fallouts—flocks of birds forced to the ground by bad weather during migration—are exciting for birders. But for all the joy we take in them, they can be extremely hard, even fatal, for the birds themselves. The Gulf Coast is famous for its spring fallouts. When storms and winds move out of the north during the peak of migration, this makes an already treacherous flight across open water just that much more dangerous.

Upon reaching the barrier islands, birds tumble from the air to the safety of the trees and brush below. But many don’t make it that far, their energy giving out before they reach the shore.

Catastrophe is not a strong enough word for these events. Yet birds are resilient and have managed to persist for many millennia. So how do they do it? Take a look at a couple of amazing stories.

Winter-BirdsSurviving the Snow

A few years ago, I worked on a research project in Alaska studying the breeding ecology of the little-known arctic warbler, a species whose only North American breeding ground is in Alaska. In late June, right in the middle of nesting season, we got hit with an unseasonable snowfall. Every one of the nests we were monitoring got wiped out. Adults simply left, abandoning eggs and chicks alike, to seek shelter elsewhere.

For a few days we thought that was it, that the season was done. But when the snow melted, the birds returned and, amazingly, started over. New nests were built, eggs were laid and chicks were hatched. There were fewer eggs per nest than normal, but the birds persisted, and by late July we saw flocks of young arctic warblers.

Birds need only short periods to produce their young, meaning that if one nest fails, they can often try again. Songbirds often lay six, seven or even more eggs at once. This means populations can recover quickly if given the opportunity. It’s very impressive when you think about it.

Facing the Hurricane  

Here’s another success story. On Oct. 8, 2001, Hurricane Iris came ashore in Belize, tearing through the lowland rainforest of the Caribbean coast, toppling trees and leveling the forest. The storm ripped through a field site where biologists were studying the ecology of the forest’s birds. While the researchers, Andrew Johnson and Kevin Winker of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, were initially dismayed, they realized they had stumbled on a unique opportunity to see how birds react to such devastation.

Within a few days of the storm, the biologists were back at work, assessing how their study populations had fared. A few species disappeared entirely, the change in habitat from mature forest to shrubland simply taking away their homes. Other species persisted, making do in their new environment. And some, those known to frequent open habitats, moved in and made themselves at home. As a whole, the community of birds showed amazing resiliency. As the forest comes back, the original population makeup will likely return as well.

Lesson Learned

So it isn’t all bad news. In fact, these species that survive extreme weather give us hope for birds in general, because they’re able to move and adapt. We can and should be saddened by events like the spring storm in Alaska or the hurricanes that tear forests apart. But birds can handle them. Now it’s our job to allow the birds enough habitat to recover. Lesson Learned
So it isn’t all bad news. In fact, these species that survive extreme weather give us hope for birds in general, because they’re able to move and adapt. We can and should be saddened by events like the spring storm in Alaska or the hurricanes that tear forests apart. But birds can handle them. Now it’s our job to allow the birds enough habitat to recover.


It might seem as if you can’t do much for birds facing extreme conditions, but here are a few things you can tackle.

  • Keep feeders filled. Before and after a big storm or other severe weather hits, it’s important to provide plenty of food for your feathered friends. During the storm, they’ll probably be taking cover. So give them food to stock up on beforehand and for refueling after.
  • Keep birdbaths fresh. Water often is forgotten, but clean, fresh water is essential for survival. This is especially important to remember during times of drought and in the heat of summer.
  • Offer shelter. We know birds take cover when bad weather is on the way. You can offer extra roosting spots by putting up another birdhouse or two. Another way to offer shelter is to plant dense trees or shrubs.
  • Help preserve habitat. This might be the most essential of all. We must provide birds with plenty of habitat so they have space to recover. You can do this on a small scale in your backyard, but I would encourage you to support larger habitat restoration and conservation efforts in your area as well.
Birds in Winter - How to Help

Rolf Nussbaumer/ Offer roosting spots by adding a birdhouse or nest box for birds like this eastern screech-owl.


  1. Barbara says

    We have about 10 birdhouses and I keep a deck rail planter out to use a feeding spot during snowy season. We get a variety of birds. We also planted dense shrubs just for the birds.

  2. Christine says

    I live here in Canada and know all to well about the harshness of the environment and dangers of power lines, Windows, cats and Hawks in my area, I keep my feeders full with food to help out my fine feathered friends and supply them with fresh water during the spring, summer and fall, I just find it difficult in winter to do this as I don’t have a bird bath heater to keep the water from freezing, but I do the best I can to help the birds as they need all the help they can get. I have some bird houses that I have made myself which I plan on putting up for them to help give them shelter in bad weather. Anyways, I thourghly enjoyed reading this article as I learned a lot from it and even though it was sad to read some parts of the article it makes me more aware how much more it is essential to help our fine feathered friends out to help ensure their survival.

    • Lois says

      Several years ago I got a heated birdbath as a Christmas gift, and I think that may be my favorite gift of all times. It is small, and I have a rock in the middle so more birds can enjoy at one time. I’ve read that dog waterers can be used, but make sure that that are shallow. Try it, you’ll like it!

  3. Nancy Beckham says

    I’ve been longing to ask this question. What should one do when your feeder plays host to a flock of invasive Red-Headed Cowbirds who lay their eggs in songbirds’ nests? I haven’t put out feed for two years because those hateful things were controlling the feeder and killing the song birds. My Cardinals and Mockingbirds are thriving without the seed, I have numerous Mourning Dove and Wren families. Chickadees and Bluebirds raised clutches in my nesting box this spring and summer.

  4. D Monroe says

    I am always trying to think of ways to provide shelter, so I piled up a great deal of fallen branches up against on old swing set in the woods behind the house. I crushed up leaves into dense piles and put them up against the brush and throw food in the structure.

    I know birds pop in and out to get the food and hang out. I don’t know if they shelter in there. There are also a couple of branch piles around a grouping of tall weeds.

    Fortunately, we could supply a heated bird bath and suet too. There are a couple of bird houses up, but I wish there was more I could figure to do. I am not handy and neither is my spouse.

  5. Ellie says

    Thanks for the info. I also keep my feeders fill at all times of the year. I have a very small space to work in, but I have still managed. I’ve planted small things like serrvice berry and a few others. GOOD LUCK BIRDS!!

    • says

      How do you keep the mice from eating the birdseed? I thought the birds were eating the food really fast, until I went outside at night and spotted two mice inside the feeder having a meal. They were back the next night again.
      Help please!

  6. Sueso says

    We take the hummingbird feeder in at night if it’s freezing. Yes, they stay all year, three of them right now withe one the king of the feeder. Ha. Hoping the cats will eke the rodents away and leave the birds alone but….also we have a persistent hawk here on the Oregon Coast. Lots of black oil sunflower seeds for everyone, and suet in the winter. Even crows were in on the action today!

  7. Georgia says

    Here in KS we just had our first snowfall, maybe 3″. I keep the feeders full, suet out and my bird bath heater stays plugged in with fresh water every day. I also have some dense bushes near the big feeder. I have a huge burn pile that I start in the spring and add to all year long. It probably stands 7′ tall and 35′ around. The birds use it in the winter along with the rabbits, mice, and other outdoor critters. Every spring I burn it and start over. Gives them a good place to take cover from the many hawks in the area. My cats don’t bother the birds.The young cat lays on the railing of my deck and watches the hummers overhead at the feeders during the summer months. She seems to be mesmerized by them. Sometimes they hover at her eye level for a minute or two and she never attempts to hurt them. It’s funny to watch them checking each other out.

  8. Francine Ciulla says

    I have been a collector of bird houses. I saw on Pinterest a outside fence wall of houses scattered. It was lovely. I put mine all up. There was 3 feeders in the yard and 2 bird baths. BUT. never once did I have a bird make it there home. Could u tell me why? Too many bird Houses? I sit at my kitchen table one foot from 3 lg windows and all bird come to feed. And I still sit there or get up or wipe off the table. It’s like they know it’s okay to eat.
    Thanks for listening. I love your Birds And Bloom. I have everyone saved since I started my subscription.
    I could sit at my table and watch them eat all day and take pictures.

    • Dee says

      I’ve read it could take years before a bird will make a nest in a birdhouse. So don’t give up :) I also have a birdhouse I put up in summer and still no resident :( but I won’t give up :)

      • says

        I used to have my birdhouse up on the wooden fence in the backyard until the bluebirds were losing their eggs to prey; I think it was snakes. I took the house down from the fence, and hung it from a tall shepherd’s hook in the middle of the yard. The bluebirds still lay eggs in it, the eggs hatched, and the babies flew away!

    • GardeNerd says

      the most important bird food is baby bird food. 97% of n. american land birds feed caterpillars to their babies. the babies cannot eat bird seed any more than a human baby can eat a steak. caterpillars come with plants native to the area in which you live. landscape to provide baby food, or no mama bird will want to raise babies where she cannot feed them. Dr Doug Tallamy has written a book Bringing Nature Home which explains the why of creating caterpillar buffets for birds. if you need help contact your local native plant society. baby food is the answer to having nesting families of birds! good luck!!

    • says

      Certain birds need the right size of house and entrance hole. You also need to be able to clean it out. Alot of the houses used for decoration don’t work well for nesting boxes. Another reason could be too close. Wrens are territorial. They do best facing east,too. You can get all the info on line looking for bird house plans. We’ve had pretty good luck some years,others not so much. Sparrows attack blue birds,so keep an eye on that. Hope this helps.

  9. Nancy Pacansky says

    We ar havinging our house tented for termites. When is the best time of year to do this? Also, what precautions do I need to take to be sure all living creatures are not hiding within.

  10. SHERYL CANNON says

    It’s so nice to hear of all the people who love and care for the animals. I too love the birds and could watch them all day. I do have 17 cats though and have to be extra careful with the feeders. Thank you all for caring and thank you Birds and Blooms for the info and great pictures you give us!

  11. Mrs. T says

    My husband calls our place the bird refuge in winter. We have placed birdhouses, feeders, and solar heated birdbaths -to keep the water from freezing-.throughout our land. We have so many visitors that come and stay. We made sure to plant trees and shrubs to help keep them in a good habitat. I have two birds that come to our Backdoor every morning to say Hello. A Cardinal and a Mountain Bluejay. They “talk” to me for a good 15 minutes then fly away to their houses. I feel blessed to be able to provide an area for them all especially in winter.

  12. Scott MacDonald says

    I keep my birdfeeders full and now that I read this article will be putting out some fresh water on the bird bath stand.

  13. Jeanne Hunter says

    i am remembering when I lived in PA. We had over a foot of snow and it was hard to protect the food for the birds. We had a piece of plywood and I supported it on two sides with cement blocks. Then I scattered seeds under it. The birds loved it. The downy woodpeckers loved the suet feeder so I had something for all of my birds.

  14. Judy Peterson says

    My birds are the best weather forecasters! They let me know whenever a real storm is coming by their activity at my feeders. When I went out to freshen the heated bird bath on the deck and fill the feeders. Amazingly, Mr Cardinal just sat on the railing watching me instead of flying off. I have several Downey Woodpeckers, a Red Headed one and a Flicker that are loving the home made suet. It’s interesting to me that the Cardinals and Woodpeckers seem to come early in the morning and late in the day. While the Chickadees, Goldfinches, Purple finches, Sparrows, Juncos and Titmouse stake out the middle of the day. It’s like they’re taking turns making up their own schedule :-).

  15. BPlumBPlum says

    Much to my surprise Downy Woodpeckers have roosted in my Blue Bird House for two winters in a row. They let me know if it is time for them to settle in for the night they keep making cute little noises until I go back in the house. They don’t mind me photographing them and are pretty friendly. I hope they come back every year. They add so much happiness to long winter days.

  16. BPlumBPlum says

    I saw an article last year in Birds and Blooms last year. It was sent in by someone that made an easy bird bath to put out in the winter that will keep the water from freezing. It is a square box with a light bulb in it and I just use a round cake pan to keep the water in it. It works wonders for the birds and the cost is minimal. I wish I knew where I put that article.

  17. Diane says

    When I buy a real x-mas tree, I always put it outside in a sheltered spot until April or May. The birds have shelter and three wasn’t wasted on 1 day!

  18. Sonia says

    I stopped feeding the birds because I began to have rodents come to my backyard. I would love to feed the birds again but I can’t have those nasty rodents here. Any suggestions?

  19. Kirk says

    I have a feeder that is a favorite with a lot of different birds. I get some finches, a downy, a flicker, 3 jays, and a bunch of chickadees and sparrows. The always ice free water I have is a huge favorite. The robins really love it. I put out some dried mealworms and some raisins by the birdbath but the robins just ignore it. A week ago I also had 2 bluebirds. That was a real surprise.

  20. No1twin says

    What can we do for the Robins? It’s only the first of February, and yesterday I saw a flock of about 30 Robins. They missed the memo on the blizzard we are supposed to get. I have put apples out in the past and they eat them like crazy. Is there anything else we can do for them?

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