Winter is upon us, and with it, colder temperatures, rain, snow, and seemingly endless nights. How do birds survive? Well, how do we survive it? The birds of Bernheim Forest are a lot like us when it comes to lasting out the winter. They use some of the same strategies and methods we humans use, if in slightly different forms.
Migration is a popular method used by people and birds alike. Although spending much of the year here, many species, such as the Chipping Sparrow and Prairie Warbler simply head south for the winter. Like some folks I know, they like being in Florida for the winter and won’t return until spring arrives and everything begins to thaw. Of course some species, like the Fox Sparrow and Pine Siskin come down from Canada and over winter here. I guess they think our weather is mild.
What about the birds that stay? How do our year round residents withstand the weather? When we bundle up to go outside, we dress in layers. This layering creates insulating air space that helps to keep us warm. Birds create these same types of layers by puffing up the feathers that surround their bodies. Others, such as geese and ducks, grow additional layers of down which they will later molt when the weather warms. Of course layering doesn’t work if you are wet, so staying dry is also an important factor. Just as we try to wear an outer layer that will shed water, so too will birds. Birds will use their beaks and oil glands to waterproof their outer layer of feathers. This practice, called preening, helps to ensure the underlying layer of down feathers stay warm and dry.
Sometimes it’s just too cold or windy to stay outside, so we seek shelter indoors, out of the weather. When we gather with family and friends, the cold of winter can seem less harsh. Chickadees, Titmice, and Nuthatches will do this as well. They gather together in sheltered areas and huddle together to roost for the night to keep each other warm. When dawn arrives, the birds of Bernheim are ready to face the new day. Just like us.
–Jim Scout, Volunteer Naturalist