It’s hard to imagine how the tiny black-capped chickadee and other small birds survive the kind of extreme cold we endured last week. But they do! Birds have numerous strategies for battling the cold – watch this white-crowned sparrow pop its head out of fluffed feathers while sitting on my platform feeder (turn down the volume - there's a lot of background noise).
Birds are well-equipped to handle cold temperatures if they are well-fed and can find effective shelter. During they day they eat voraciously to build the fat reserves that get them through cold nights. And like this white-crowned sparrow, birds will fluff their feathers to trap layers of warm air for insulation.
It’s important that birds are able to find shelter out of the wind and snow. At night some birds will roost in cavities while others are huddled within the tangle of branches of trees and shrubs. It’s important they aren’t disturbed – moving around uses precious energy reserves. Night-prowling cats and other predators will disturb birds off their roosts, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. Other types of activity will disturb night-roosting birds too. Earlier this winter I noticed that when arriving home after dark I would disturb the cardinals roosting in a cedar tree near the driveway. Luckily I was able to find an alternative place to park, leaving the birds at peace.
Birds do die of course. In the past week I’ve found a dead Carolina wren and a yellow-bellied sapsucker near my back door. A friend in Oklahoma recently found two dead pine siskins and a white-winged dove. It’s rare to see large die-offs although they can happen. Years ago my husband found many dead starlings scattered under a tree after a bad winter storm in Nebraska – these surely were the victims of exposure.