Birds & Winter

Birds sitting on a wire

by Joan Greene

American Crow
Photograph by: Ronald Manley - Photo taken in Brentwood, Tennessee, on February 15, 2021.

Baby, it is cold outside.  On winter days like today one becomes aware of the tenaciousness of birds. According to Bernd Heinrich in Cornell’s All About Birds blog, “They (birds) solve the winter survival problem in many ways, often by doing many things at once.  . . . The most simple formula: maximize calories ingested while minimizing calories spent.”  

Birds store fat during the short days of winter by constantly feeding 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. Come morning the cycle begins anew. Birds must replenish and store fat to survive the next night.  

By traveling as a group and converging to huddle, many species of birds make their own shelter. Using each other as a heat source, as a means of reducing their own heat loss, is an ingenious strategy. I found one account of a birdwatcher observing thirteen Eastern Blue Birds flying out of one small bird box at dawn.

Crows survive by traveling in groups and communal roosts that can be an many as a thousand or so crows in place overnight.  Often the roost is one that is used year after year.

Photo by Steve Trupiano - Eastern Bluebirds

Here are three simple things that will help birds during the freezing days of winter:

Provide shelter and places to roost:

Planting evergreen trees and shrubs on your property so that birds have natural shelter

Cleaning out birdhouses at the end of the fall to prepare as winter shelter.  It is very important to clean out old nests from houses to help reduce the possibility of parasitic bugs. One authority suggests plugging air vent holes and cracks with a claylike weather stripping called Moretite or similar.  Remember to remove in the spring.  

Providing roosting boxes (Plans for making a roosting box:

Leaving dead trees and logs on your property

Building a brush pile in a quiet corner. Stack fallen branches, garden cuttings, discarded Christmas trees and other plant material in a crosshatched pattern to create an inviting shelter for many kinds of birds.

We can provide habitats for birds on a small scale in our own backyards, but it is important to support larger habitat restoration and conservation efforts in our state through wildlife sanctuaries, as well as, local, state and federal parks.

Provide high-protein foods:

Foods, such as suet, meat scraps, and peanut butter. Fat gives the biggest energy boost to winter birds, and without enough energy to keep them going, many songbirds would not survive a cold winter night. Suet (the fat removed from processed beef), meat scraps, and peanut butter all provide fat to birds that eat them. If you don’t have a suet feeder, use a mesh onion bag. Suspend it from a tree branch or iron feeder hook. To feed peanut butter, drill one-inch holes in a foot-long section of a small log. Insert a screw eye into one end of the log. Smear peanut butter into the holes and suspend the feeder from the screw eye. It is a myth that peanut butter will choke a bird.

Make sure that seeds are accessible and dry

Mealworms are a great source of protein

Oil sunflower seeds


Provide a source of water:

Heated birdbaths can be helpful on the coldest of days. Some experts suggest putting stones in the water so that birds can drink but are not tempted to bath.

Birds can use snow for water.

2 Dark-eye Junco, American Goldfinch, Female Cardinal
Photo by: Michelle McCarson, McEwen, Tennessee, February 16, 2021

There are ways that humans can help birds survive the winter’s frigid temperatures, but be assured that they are well equipped to forage in the wild.  Research shows that wild birds only get an average of 25% of their food from feeders.  Our efforts on a frigid winter day may be just the thing that enables a bird to conserve energy for the long cold night ahead.  At the very least backyard feeders link us to nature and allow us to view the wonder and variety of birds. Backyard bird feeding is one of the most common ways people engage with wildlife in many parts of the world.

This is a good link to truths and myths about feeding wild birds.

Photo by Michelle Nowak - Pair of Cardinals on a Winter Day - Photo taken in Tipton County, Tennessee.

Want to learn to draw birds and other Tennessee Wildlife? Learn about Field Journaling and Nature Drawing: (Search under "Register.")