How Do Birds Survive the Final Months of Winter?

Kinglets huddled. Image @ Cornell labs
Kinglets huddled in a fir tree. Illustrator, Megan Bishop, Cornell Lab

Watching backyard birds at my feeders from November through the end of February, I’ve wondered how they manage to survive a dearth of food and cold- and wind-free shelters throughout the long winter months. In my back yard I provide a variety of foods to satisfy different species, from suet cakes for woodpeckers, to small suet/berry balls for blue birds, to finch seed for finches, millet seed for ground feeders, and hulled sunflower and safflower seeds that reduce seed residue and which all creatures (including deer) enjoy. Two Christmas trees strategically placed near the feeders provide shelter, as do birdhouses and fir trees.

Still, February and March must seem like a long slog for hungry little critters whose high metabolic rates vs. body weights defy description.

Cornell Lab-Woodpecker
Pileated woodpecker @ Meghan Bishop

The leaves of white oak trees do not decompose as quickly as with other trees, and remain on the ground for months. Insects and their larvae find shelter (and warmth) underneath the white oak leaves’ ground cover blankets, providing rich protein for birds and other forest creatures during winter months. Pileated woodpeckers dig deep into decaying trees for insects hidden within their bark, which should remind us to not to cut down dead or dying trees (if they do not endanger our homes or lives) so that they, during their long decay, can provide life-saving sustenance to a variety of woodland species.

This 2018 article from the Cornell Lab, which studied how birds survived the months of winter, provides a few explanations and some beautiful illustrations. The questions this article asked were: How do birds cope with cold winter temperatures? How do they find food in the snow, and how do they make it through long, freezing nights? Check out some of their secrets in the above article from Living Bird magazine: