Cold Weather Warriors: How Do Birds Stay Warm in Winter?
When temperatures dip below freezing, these birds love it! Discover the unique ways that birds stay warm on the coldest winter days.
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As you bundle up in a heavy coat, hat and gloves, you might be wondering: how do birds stay warm in winter? Known for nomadic movements, bold feather patterns and special adaptations for surviving chilly temps, these winter-loving birds brave frigid, snowy conditions and delight bird-watchers across the country.
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Snowy owls sport striking white plumage and piercing yellow eyes. They are true dwellers of the Arctic, where lemmings are their favorite food. Snowies hunt any time of day during the summer. They are the heaviest owl in North America at about 4 pounds and their thick feathers insulate them from the cold. These thick feathers are just one answer to the question of how do birds stay warm in winter. Snowy owls show up during the winter around the Great Lakes, northern New England and the north-central plains, sometimes in considerable numbers, looking for prey.
“These periodic irruptions are not, as widely assumed, caused by a lack of prey in the Arctic, but the reverse,” says Scott Weidensaul, ornithologist and co-founder of Project SNOWstorm, which speciﬁcally studies snowy owls. “When there’s a productive breeding season in the North, itself a result of a boom in lemming populations, all those young owls making their ﬁrst migration south produce the periodic invasions. Far from being desperate and starving, most of them are perfectly healthy.”
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White-Winged and Red Crossbills
Crossbills, common across Canada and western boreal regions, are best known for their twisted beaks, the tips of which don’t match up. With these unique crossed bills, they pry open conifer cones to get the nutritious seeds inside. When food is plentiful, crossbills breed, even during the winter. If there are no cones, they irrupt, sometimes coming to feeders stuffed with sunﬂower seeds.
“Crossbills will feed when there’s 3 feet of snow on the ground, but if the snow is heavy and wet or there’s an ice storm, they’ll move,” says Matt Young, founder and president of the Finch Research Network. “They only come to feeders as a last resort and usually in late winter or early spring when wild food is limited.”
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Snow buntings breed above the Arctic Circle and are the northernmost songbirds. Males arrive in spring about a month ahead of females, withstanding subzero temperatures to claim a nest site among the cold rocks. Once the females lay their eggs, males deliver food so their mates can stay in the nest most of the time.
During the winter, snow buntings head as far south as the central United States, where you might spot them as they ﬂit from ﬁeld to ﬁeld. “There isn’t much for trees where snow buntings come from, so they feed where they can access the ground,” says Melissa Mayntz, author of Migration: Exploring the Remarkable Journeys of Birds. “When I lived in Utah, I would throw seeds under a table on our patio. The snow buntings would quickly ﬁgure out ‘food!’ They like mixed seeds, try a blend of millet and black oil sunﬂower seeds.”
As one of their winter survival strategies, snow buntings don’t molt twice like most birds. In spring, their worn-down feathers reveal new ones. What’s more, their feather density is higher to prevent heat loss, especially at the base of their bills and on their lower legs. They’ll also ﬂy or ﬂop into snowdrifts, making a little hollow to stay warm in winter.
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After breeding on the Arctic tundra, Lapland longspurs form large nomadic ﬂocks during the winter—sometimes groups consist of more than a million birds! The chunky songbirds forage for seeds in patches of low grass and vegetation and on bare ground, especially on agricultural lands and coastal dunes.
“Lapland longspurs will ﬂock with highly social snow buntings,” Melissa says. “Both species are ground feeders and have similar food preferences and behaviors.”
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Bohemian waxwings are another northern breeder, in this case from Alaska to Hudson Bay. But during the winter they wander like black-masked vagabonds across northwestern United States and western Canada in search of fruits and berries. They also irregularly drift into New England, the northern Midwest and Ontario.
“Bohemian waxwings are unpredictable, suddenly appearing and then leaving. They ﬂy to the best food source, strip it clean, then move on,” Melissa says. “They travel in large groups, following the leader to ﬁnd the best feeding spots. If you plant fruit trees, such as crabapples or even junipers, and leave the fruit, the odds are high they’ll ﬁnd them.”
Psst—bohemian and cedar waxwings look very similar. Learn how to tell them apart.
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These hulking ﬁnches, with conical bills and striking yellow forehead patches and chests on males, are like a burst of sunshine when they visit feeders. Evening grosbeaks breed in the North and West but migrate south during winter as far as they need to for food. They love sunﬂower seeds, though the planting of ornamental box elders is credited with their spread across the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.
“Evening grosbeaks irrupt farther south during the winter when there are food shortages and to escape inclement weather,” Matt says. “They like platform or hopper feeders, because they travel in large, gregarious ﬂocks and have voracious appetites, hence their nicknames ‘gross-pigs’ or ‘ grocery-beaks.’ ”
Check out magical bird photos of cardinals in snow.
Three species of rosy-ﬁnches are closely related: black, gray-crowned (above) and brown-capped. Black and brown-capped rosy-ﬁnches are among the highest-elevation breeding birds in North America, often nesting above 14,000 feet. To stay warm in winter, these birds roost together for protection, often in conifers.
“They’ll stay as long as they can up high, until they run out of food, then they’ll move lower to protected valleys. A few hundred feet can mean the difference between a snowstorm and no snow. Or they’ll go to the leeward side of a hill,” Matt says. “They’re attracted to weed ﬁelds in the winter for seeds, but they’ll come to a feeder ﬁlled with sunﬂower seeds or Nyjer seed.”
Check out 7 types of winter finches you should look for in cold weather.
Hoary and Common Redpolls
Here’s another unique answer to the question of how do birds stay warm in winter. Common redpolls, with their red chests and red caps, and their paler cousins, hoary redpolls, withstand winter’s extremes by tunneling into the snow to stay warm during the night. “Redpolls are the most northern of the ﬁnches. They even bathe in the snow!” Matt says.
To feed, redpolls seek out tiny seeds from birch, alder, conifers and many other plants, gathering them into their throat pouches and ﬂying to a more protected spot to eat. In winter, they can ingest 40% of their weight in seed a day. By putting on about 30% more feathers during the winter, these residents of the Arctic and northernmost boreal forests can survive -65 degrees, but they’ll migrate as far south as the central United States, congregating at feeders. “They’ll eat sunﬂower seeds, but they love thistle and Nyjer,” Matt says.
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