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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • The Green Space: How do birds make it through the snowstorm

  • I am sure that many of us during this past storm were thankful when running from the car, or between buildings, to at last reach the sanctuary of a warm home, office, or other building.
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  • I am sure that many of us during this past storm were thankful when running from the car, or between buildings, to at last reach the sanctuary of a warm home, office, or other building. The door closed behind shutting out frigid temperatures and plain-old bad weather while we could take a deep breath and sink into the luxury of heat.
    I looked out upon the feeders I have around my house and saw them literally covered with birds. During the deep cold and freezing temperatures, I especially try to keep the feeders stocked. It is expensive to fill them all the time, but when the temperatures drop –
    I can better justify the seed. It is amazing to see the tiny, little American goldfinches, chick-a-dees, and even the Juncos and wonder how they stay warm in such frosty conditions. Even a chipmunk ventured out to see what the thunder was going on; now that was an unusual site!
    Warm blooded animals like mammals and birds are homeothermic, meaning they control their own body temperature regardless of the temperature of their surroundings. How do mammals and birds do this – through evolution, adaptations, and quite simply, by the incredible way in which they were made.
    We all know that birds have feathers – that is one unique thing that makes them a bird. The main thing that birds have going for them in winter is their down. Down is a specialized feather that is found underneath all of the other feathers and is soft and fluffy. Many of us have had down coats, vests, and even comforters for the bed or other items. It is because down is so good at trapping in warmth and keeping out the cold. (Don't worry, down found in coats and vests did not come from songbirds, it came from chickens, ducks, and geese.) Down is the number one resource that birds have to help stay warm.
    Here is the trick to how even the smallest bird can get through a freezing winter; they build up their fat stores in the fall when food supplies are the most plentiful. Not only do the fat reserves provide insulation and extra energy for generating body heat, the fat is then used throughout the winter when food is more scarce. Small birds are the most vulnerable because it takes more of their core energy to keep warm, since they have smaller body cores it is more difficult for them to do this efficiently. This is why it is most important to supply extra seed during the coldest times of the winter. When seed is available, less fat reserve has to be spent.
    Birds have made behavioral adaptations to help them survive winter, too. You may have seen birds all fluffed up on a cold winter day as it is snowing and gusting frigid winds. Fluffing their feathers in this manner creates air pockets further trapping warm air against their body while their outer feathers are keeping the cold out.
    Page 2 of 2 - Roosting is a common practice amongst birds trying to stay warm and if the roosting site is not properly chosen – it can be a killer. Bluebirds are especially prone to this one. Many bluebirds will fly to southern Missouri and Kansas, or even a bit further south to escape colder temperatures, and if temperatures drop they will often roost. They choose a deep cavity and all pile in. Anywhere from two to 10 birds can be found in one roosting site, dependent on how large the site is. This can be a bluebird box, for example. If the box is not made of the recommended (at least one inch thick lumber) the birds will all freeze. I witnessed this a few times while I was a nature center manager. It breaks your heart.
    During the storm, I hope you were able to spread some seed, get a mug of hot chocolate, and watch the birds.
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