Winter Birds Myths and Facts

Some folks worry winter birds will freeze on cold nights or in bird baths. Our expert has the bird facts to answer these questions.

When it comes to winter birds, it seems there are more myths than usual. Here are a few of the common ones I’ve heard. Hopefully, I can help debunk these winter birds myths once and for all with the correct winter birds facts.

winter birds

Barbara Myers
In winter birds will fluff up their feathers to trap body heat.

Winter Birds Myth: Birds will freeze to death when temperatures drop far below zero.
Winter Birds Fact: Birds are well equipped to survive the coldest of temperatures. They store fat during the short days of winter to keep themselves warm during the long nights. During those freezing nights, they fluff their feathers to trap heat and slow their metabolism to conserve energy. They also look for good places to roost, whether it’s a birdhouse, natural tree cavity, grass thicket, evergreen or shrub.

Winter Birds Myth: American robins always fly south for winter.
Winter Birds Fact: If there is sufficient food on their breeding grounds, American robins, bluebirds, and a host of finches and owls remain in the area where they spent the summer. As these birds often eat insects, they will instead forage among tree bark for overwintering bugs rather than on the frozen ground, where you’re more likely to see them in spring and summer.

Winter Birds Myth: You should take birdhouses down in winter because birds don’t use them and other creatures will move in.
Winter Birds Fact: On the contrary! A birdhouse makes a great roosting house in winter. Eastern bluebirds will pile into houses to spend cold nights. One photographer once even snapped a picture of 13 male bluebirds in a single house!

Winter Birds Myth: If you leave town during winter, the birds that rely on the food from your feeders will die.
Winter Birds Fact: Research has proven this one wrong. Scientists have shown that chickadees, for example, will eat only 25% of their daily winter food from feeders. They find the other 75% in the wild.
In addition, with so many people feeding them nowadays, birds in your yard will simply fly to a nearby neighbor to get their food until you return home.

winter birds

Ron Newhouse
Suet cages are usually covered in vinyl to prevent winter birds’ feet from sticking, but bird feet are pretty tough anyway.

Winter Birds Myth: Birds’ feet will stick to metal bird feeders and suet cages.
Winter Birds Fact: Most suet cages have a laminated covering, so you don’t have to worry about birds’ feet sticking to it. But in general, their feet can endure cold weather. Birds have a protective scale-like covering on their feet, and special veins and arteries that keep their feet warm.

Winter Birds Myth: All hummingbirds migrate south for winter.
Winter Birds Fact: Though most hummingbird species in North America do migrate south for the winter, the Anna’s hummingbird remains on its West Coast breeding grounds.

Winter Birds Myth: Birds always migrate in flocks.
Winter Birds Fact: Though many birds migrate in flocks-common nighthawks, American robins, swallows and European starlings, for example-other species migrate alone. The most amazing example of this is a juvenile hummingbird that has never migrated before, yet knows when to fly, where to fly, how far to fly and when to stop. And it does this all alone.

Winter Birds Myth: Migration means north in the spring and south in the winter.
Winter Birds Fact: Some bird species migrate to higher elevations in the spring and down to lower elevations in the winter. Examples include rosy finches and ptarmigans in the West.

Winter Birds Myth: Peanut butter will get stuck in birds’ throats, and they will choke.
Winter Birds Fact: Peanut butter is a very nourishing food for birds, especially in winter when the production of fat is important to their survival. The winter birds myth that it will stick in their throats simply isn’t true.

Winter Birds Myth: American goldfinches are bright yellow year-round.
Winter Birds Fact: As fall approaches, American goldfinches lose their bright-yellow plumages, replacing them with feathers that are a dull, brownish-green. Many people don’t recognize these birds in winter, even though duller-colored birds are still at the feeders. They assume that their “wild canaries” have migrated south for winter.

winter birds

Renee Blake
No need to worry about winter birds freezing to death in bird baths – they avoid getting their feathers wet.

Winter Birds Myth: Woodpeckers drill on house siding in winter for food or to create nesting cavities.
Winter Birds Fact: Though there are cases where woodpeckers find food in wood siding (and may even nest inside the boards), nearly all the drilling in late winter is done to make a noise to court mates. This is their way of singing a song to declare territory.

Winter Birds Myth: If you have warm water in a birdbath when the temperature is below freezing, birds will bathe in it and freeze to death from wet feathers.
Winter Birds Fact: Birds will drink from a heated birdbath, but if the temperature is well below freezing, they will not bathe in it and get their feathers wet. If you’re still worried, offer warm water to drink, but make it too deep or inaccessible for the birds to bathe in.

  1. Nancy says

    it below freezing outside with below 0 wind chill factor. I have seen birds bathe in the heated bird bath. And i am worried their wings will freeze and they won’t be able to fly. So I have seen them bathe in this weather.

    • LEE says

      I have no shortage of winter birds with temperatures that get as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit and I provide no water. I think that the birds get what they need from the edges of streams that have moving water or melting snow/ice on tree bark, rocks, or other dark surfaces that hold our weak sunlight.

      I think the person who mentioned that it really depends on the climate where one lives is correct. There is a big difference between 29 degrees F and -20 or -30 degrees F. in the same way that only part of their food comes from humans they would obtain fluid from elsewhere if we were not present.

      My birdbath water does not go down quickly in the summer which leads me to believe that like my cats birds obtain moisture from other foods they eat and/or there is another source of water for them (in my case a meandering river).

      And, yes my cats are indoor cats – for their protection from larger wildlife in our area. (But I also think that if I am attracting birds with seed I need to protect them from my predators as well!) It took them a while to become used to being inside as both were previously outdoors and adopted by me but they have a lot of toys and attention.

    • Mike Ward says

      I have lots of sparrows, cardinals and blue jays that take baths in the freezing winter in my heated bird bath. I have always wondered if they survive.

  2. Kathryn says

    We put a heater in our small garden pond for the first time this winter because we have fish in it and also wanted to provide a winter water source for wildlife. It is currently -30 celsius with wind chill here. I noticed 5 Starlings bathing in the pond and all five of them froze within minutes after. I could see their wings freezing while they were trying to preen them. Two of them died quickly after freezing; one was hanging upside down, still clutched on to a thin garden trellis; the other one fell dead out of a tree in our yard. I tried to catch the other three, as they were unable to fly, but I was only able to catch one. I brought it in to warm up. When I released it the next day, it flew to a tree but then it went back to the pond and bathed itself again within 20 minutes of being released and froze again! I repeated the warming up process and released it yet again the following day. It flew out of sight and I can only hope it didn’t return to the pond. The pond is deep and most birds just stand on the rocks around the edge to drink the water. The Starlings are the only birds I’ve witnessed bathing in it, but it is still a very sad and unfortunate experience that had my husband threatening to remove the pond.

      • Kathryn says

        Yes, I saved a Starling. And I attempted to save others again, as this has been ongoing all winter. Invasive species or not, I am going to help another living creature if I see it suffering. That is my right as a fellow creature of this planet, to choose to help another if I want to. I am ruled by compassion not by the rules of you or anyone else. And in regard to another comment, yes, nature can be cruel but nature itself has nothing to do with an electric heater being added to my pond, there is nothing ‘natural’ about that. Where I live it is extremely cold in winter and this will be the one and only winter that the pond heater will be used. I will never use it again. If people live in a place where winter is milder and the heaters work for you, that’s great, but they are no good in areas with extreme winters.

        • eve says

          Good for you for saving the starling and hope you find a way to still keep your pond warm for your fish. Maybe netting over it to keep the birds out? We have a fountain where unfortunately we found a drowned bird in the deepest of three basins so we covered that with netting.

  3. Dana says

    I don’t think that people should post hunches as articles. This is a bad article with bad advice. Two thumbs down. Birds will bathe in the warm water and they will freeze to death because of your bad advice in this article.

  4. suzcandoit says

    I’ve read all of the above and they are very sad outcomes…I do not think “bad advice” has been given.One thing to compare is that where I live, it has been horrifically cold and then warm and back to sub zero and back up…as well as wet, wet, wet. So much so that the variance is within 8 to 12 hours between drastic temperatures. Their wings get very wet if it has been raining, sleeting, snowing or all inclusive. They manage to fluff and dry themselves. I have not found ANY on my property that have periled. Nature happens and it hurts. Try as I do for my birds and provide/feed LOTS of high energy suet, protein, fruits, nuts and seeds all year round. Maybe this has given them the stability they need during harsh weather.

  5. Kay says

    I am SO disappointed in Birds and Blooms for running this article!
    I cannot be the only one who has witnessed birds bathing in warm water birdbaths, then seeing their feathers freeze!
    More “fact”checking, please!!!

  6. Kathy says

    I’m glad that I saw this article. I live in the
    Chicago, IL area and we are knee deep
    in snow and cold, and I couldn’t under stand why I have been seeing do many Robins this year. I was sure that that they always left this area in the winter.

  7. says

    Regarding the suggestion for offering warm water for birds to drink in the winter: I’m concerned that this is misleading because I have seen demonstrations on the news that the warmer the water, the more quickly it freezes. Also, the article states, “offer warm water to drink, but make it too deep or inaccessible for the birds to bathe in” which is contrary to what I had been told to place a small stone in the center of my bird bath to prevent small birds from drowning. It would be nice to get this clarified.

    • NHjunco says

      I know. on sunny days, there’s a line of chickadees along the snow-melt line on the roof of the barn. Many birds can take fluffy snow in their mouths and melt it. Its only the days when it is dead cold and sunless, and any snow is hard and dehydrated.

      I have a huge ash tree all my birds drink off.

  8. Ann says

    I found a drowned bird in my horse’s water tub last summer. I have no idea how it drowned. I have a new bird species in my yard, tiny brown house wrens, they are so cute! I also have about 35+ other species of birds.

  9. Gpa Moose says

    A small heater in our birdbath kept drinking water available all winter. We had never seen so many robins, even during summer months. Even in sub-freezing weather, no bathing birds were frozen, even though we were concerned about that. Also made a nite-light heater for a hummingbird feeder that worked all winter for us in western Oregon.

  10. Bob says

    I live in CT. I have a shallow birdbath with a small heater that keeps a small patch unfrozen when the temp is below 25. If the sun is out in 25 degree weather the bath is not frozen, and 10 to 15 starlings will bath and fly away with seemingly no ill effects.

  11. Frank Komitsky Jr says

    I have a line of hanging baskets with ferns, spider plants, and other vegetation outside of a row of three picture windows in the winter. Heat flows out the windows and keeps the plants from freezing during cold nights. Every cold night eac plant will have as many as 3-4 birds roost in it, gaining some protection from the cold.

  12. Paula Squitiere says

    Birds in my winter garden bathe in my birdbath kept from freezing with my de-icer, when it’s below freezing. No myth, they do it.

  13. Ann B. says

    I live in the Chicago area and have a heated birdbath on my balcony. Last winter, when it was VERY cold out, two starlings took very splashy baths in the birdbath. I was shocked! I have no idea if they survived or not. I would have to believe that Mother Nature has equipped these guys to know whether or not it’s OK to get wet. If I saw them freezing, I would also warm them up, as I try to be kind to any living creature, invasive species or not.

  14. Deanna says

    When and if I should clean out full birdhouses?
    Most of the openings on my purple house are completely stuffed up.
    Is it ok to clean them out or do the birds use them for warmth in the winter or should I let nature be?

  15. Kirk Klag says

    I have a downy that comes to my feeder. It looks like he only eats the suet but could be eating other stuff. I also have a flicker that comes around for suet and other tidbits. I had quite a few jays in the summer but now only seems to be 3. Finches are gone but have a nuthatch, bunch of sparrows and some chickadees.

  16. Kirk Klag says

    I think the article is OK. I have a heated bird bath and I have many birds drinking, and bathing, there in below freezing weather (in facts in the teens and 20s). They splash around a bit, jump on the edge and shake good and then fly off. Some to the feeder some to ?. Have never had a frozen bird.


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