Winter weather conditions always make it a bit more difficult for Canada’s wild birds. Days are shorter, nights are longer and colder, and most birds’ natural food supply dwindles or simply becomes hidden by snow. Bare trees and covered brush provide minimal shelter from harsh winds and predators. And, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, this year may prove a bit harder than average. The coldest temperatures are expected to run south and east across the Laurentian Plateau to the Great Lakes, while the Pacific coast and Maritime Provinces will encounter chilly winter temperatures close to normal. And, for those of us who were banking on another snowless season, we can forget about that. February is predicted to be notably volatile with much of every province receiving significant snowfall.
So, the question for us birders is, what can we do to help our feathered friends weather these conditions?
Understanding bird behaviour in the winter
In order to know how to help, it’s important to first understand what Canadian birds are doing during the winter months to help themselves. Wintering birds have several efficient instincts to keep them warm on even the chilliest of days. During those very cold days and nights, birds adapt by fluffing up their feathers to create insulated air pockets, tuck their bills into their shoulders for protection against the elements, or they simply build up plenty of fat reserves during the fall to generate additional body heat.
To cope with colder temperatures, birds also shiver as a means of raising their body heat. In fact, for a bird, shivering can mean producing heat up to five times its normal body temperature. Without shivering, its temperature would quickly drop, leaving the bird in a state of hypothermia.
Birds may even take shivering one step further by entering a state of torpor (unconsciousness) to conserve energy. This means that a bird’s metabolic rate is lowered, requiring fewer calories to maintain proper body warmth. A state of torpor can be fatal for any bird as it leads to reduced reactions and greater susceptibility to predators. Therefore, it’s important they keep their metabolic rates high to produce the necessary energy to make it through another day.
Although birds have many physical and behavioural adaptations to resist the cold, these acts alone are not always enough to survive Canada’s winter weather.
How can you help?
As winter fast approaches, it is especially helpful to keep your feeders nice and full so that birds can easily find nourishment. Serve up foods that are high in fat or oil content as they provide abundant energy for winter survival. Nutritious foods like black oil sunflower seeds, Niger and peanuts are great overall offerings for birds during the winter months because of their high levels of fat and protein. You can also try giving your backyard friends nutritious and high calorie foods in the form of suet cakes. Wild bird Suet cakes are made with beef tallow and blended with a variety of seeds, nuts and fruits to create the ultimate high-energy treat for wild birds.
Lastly, try to make shelters available around your home. With high winds and cold drifts, a nice man-made birdhouse or nest would make good refuge for visiting birds. Along with helping the birds, this activity will be sure to make your home a hot spot for beautiful bird activity this winter.