Winter for the Birds

December signals the official beginning of the winter season. For those of us who live in temperate environments, that means temperatures often below freezing. Many organisms, such as many plants and animals partake in some sort of reduced state of activity, but not the birds.

How do birds survive the cold temperatures and changes in available food sources? Birds have many adaptations to respond to the changing season. Many migrate south, but “south” is a relative term. Some of our local migratory birds, such as the ruby-throated hummingbird and yellow warbler, do fly to the warmer southern temperatures near the tropics to survive the cold temperatures and to find food in areas plentiful with nectar and insects. But what about those birds which we see “year-round” here? Some of these birds, like the dark-eyed junco and white-crowned sparrow, migrate from more northern latitudes to over-winter in Indiana. Some birds remain here year-round.

What adaptations do these over-wintering birds exhibit to survive our Indiana winters?

One adaptation is that they may grow extra, more densely packed feathers to trap their body’s warm air, resulting in a fluffed-up appearance. Another adaptation is that they can change food sources. Carolina wrens are mainly insect and spider feeders during the warmer months but insects can be few and far between in winter. These little sassy birds will eat suet in the winter (either made by humans or nature made).

They can scratch under piles of leaves and brush to find dormant insects and spiders to eat, too. They also will eat mealworms (the larvae of darkling beetles). Those birds which are seed and fruit eaters during the warm months may switch to seed and winter berries (which pack more fat and protein than the sugar-rich summer fruits). The change in diet between warm and cold seasons allows for a diet higher in fat and protein, which helps to fuel the internal furnace to stay warm. Shelter use is another adaptation exhibited by our winter birds. Some remain in the cover of evergreen trees or brush piles, leaving to feed and find water. Some birds use nesting boxes or holes in trees for cover from the winter weather.

How can we give a helping hand to our winter birds? Providing water in shallow containers helps them to stay hydrated. Keeping nesting boxes up for the winter also helps (you can clean them between seasons to avoid the spread of possible disease). You can also help by adding feeders of different kinds to provide a variety of food choices to meet dietary needs. I like to put out a suet feeder for the woodpeckers, wrens, and nuthatches. I provide peanuts and sunflower seeds for cardinals, titmice, and blue jays. I also have a general all-purpose feeder that contains a variety of seed types and sizes to attract a variety of birds such as sparrows and finches.

If you do put up a feeder station, consider becoming a citizen scientist to help researchers learn more about our birds.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch is a great way to start as you identify and count the different birds that come to your feeder. You can find out more at feederwatch.org. Not sure about your identification skills? Join one of the many Audubon Christmas bird counts between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

Connect with other birders to identify and count winter bird populations (you also may do it again in the summer). You can find out more at udubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count or to find count results from 1900 to the present at audubon.org/bird/cbc.

Observing and assisting our winter birds is an exciting and rewarding experience. It’s an activity for all ages and abilities. There are many ways to make homemade winter bird feeders.Here is one source for some creative homemade feeders:familyhandyman.com/list/14-easy-diy-winter-bird-feeders/. You can also make more natural feeders using pinecones thespruce.com/pine-cone-bird-feeder-385750 (you can also use the same idea and fill milkweed pods too).

There are many ways to provide additional food for the winter birds. Look around and see if you can find materials to even create some shelter for them too. If you are unsure of the type of feeder and food to provide and which birds the food attracts, check out these helpful links at allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-choose-the-right-kind-of-bird-feeder/ and allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/. Have fun this winter attracting and learning about the birds that call your area home. Remember, birds are one of the only animals that people see each day of the year. Think about it.

If you are interested in finding the nature that resides in you and to find the extraordinary in the ordinary things we see or pass up every day, then consider participating in one or more of our events, where you can get personal with nature to make or strengthen your connections to Earth. Find an event at oakheritageconservancy.org/events/