This post is for the birds. Literally. How corny is that?! And I don’t mean my chickens this time: they’re all tucked away in their coop, probably cursing the winter gods for covering their stomping grounds with too many inches of ice-cold white stuff that makes walking on and scratching in impossible. This post is for all the wild birds out there. #BirdShoutOut. Winter is hard on birds. They’re nomads, forced to forage for diminished food supplies, and spend their days in anticipation of finding momentary solace in the warm embrace of like-minded winged souls. Dramatic, isn’t it? It’s a hard-knock life for winter birds.
It gets cold here in Ontario. Like -20C plus a windchill factor. At times the wind is biting and merciless, the snow is little more than stinging icy pellets that promise to take your eye out, and your fingers tingle inside heavy mittens before you even step out the door. It becomes a chore to haul on heavy boots to check on eggs that probably weren’t laid, and the thirty second trek to the coop feels more like a trans-Siberian expedition with burning cheeks, hunched shoulders, and the inevitable shortness of breath that transpires when frosty air invades toasty lungs. Meanwhile, seemingly oblivious to the extreme frigid weather, flitting around my bird feeders and hopping in and out of my burning bushes are chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, goldfinches, and mourning doves. I find it amazing that these little puffballs can handle the cold weather far better than I. It turns out, birds have developed great strategies at keeping warm in the winter.
How birds keep warm in winter
It’s hard to believe that some birds actually choose to stay here in Ontario in the winter. When I start to see the great migration of geese in their giant mass of V formations, it means that soon the chickadees, juncos and finches that have been scarce in my yard all summer will be making good friends with my bird feeders. These non-migratory birds are well-suited for the often frigid temperatures of our cold Canadian winters. Most are equipped with down feathers that help keep them warm by creating little pockets of trapped air close to their bodies. To put it into perspective: think about your best parka or your favourite down duvet. Then imagine wearing that all the time. Or be like me and wear your parka in the house. With a toque. And long underwear. It happens. Not only are birds well-feathered for winter, but they also employ a variety of techniques to increase their ability to keep warm. Techniques like shivering, which is an effective way to raise their metabolic rate and generate more body heat.
Wild birds also depend on other birds as a source of heat. At night, they will nestle close to one another, in a birdie dogpile, sharing body heat to keep as warm as possible. They try to find small, wind-free spots where they can congregate, often on branches near the trunk of a tree, where it is warmer and more protected. They keep their legs and feet tucked in against their breasts when they can, and will fold their head and beak under their wing. Some birds, like chickadees, are torpid and will lower their metabolic rate in order to drop their body temperature. They do this because a lower body temperature means less calories are needed to keep the body warm. It’s considered a controlled hypothermia, which is pretty cool, but can also be dangerous for the little birds because lower body temperature means slower reaction time to danger and predators.
One of the most important ways a bird can keep warm is by increasing its caloric load. Birds are endothermic, which means they generate their own body heat. The colder the external temperatures are, the more calories a bird must consume in order to keep their internal temperatures up. To achieve this during the cold winter months, birds require an increased caloric load. This means they need to eat more and much more frequently in order to help keep their bodies as warm as possible. Further, in order for them to dedicate their calorie intake to keeping warm, it is important for them to not have to spend as much energy foraging for food. This is where the all-important suet cake comes in!
How you can help a bird out
It’s easy to lend birds a hand and take the hard work out of keeping warm:
Wait until spring to cut back shrubs and perennials. This helps to create roosting areas and hidey holes for birds. Predators take advantage of the slower reaction times of cold birds and leaving birds some great escape routes helps them exponentially. Take that one step further by planting bird-friendly trees (those with edible fruits and berries) and the mixed flocks visiting your home all winter will thank you!
Sources of water
Birds still need to drink in winter. They will consume snow if they have no other option, but ingesting snow lowers their body temperature, meaning that they have to consume more calories to get that temperature back up. You can invest in a bird bath heater or make fresh water available to them daily.
Having good quality food sources readily available for wild birds is essential, especially in the winter. By keeping your birdfeeders full of nutrient dense seeds like black oil sunflower, and by hanging suet cakes full of seeds, nuts, and raisins, gives birds prime eating opportunities without the workload of having to forage for it themselves. By placing your bird feeders and suet cakes in a location that is easily accessible, difficult for predators to gain access to and also has branches nearby for birds to rest on, you are creating a perfect spot for the birds to gain maximum caloric intake while using a minimum amount of energy. Putting the feeder in a sunny, less-windy spot is ideal, and you will be rewarded with birds gathering there all the time! Another great tip is to leave seedheads and berries on the trees. Don’t cut anything back until spring. Those seedheads can be noshed on all winter.
Why suet cakes?
In the winter, insects are typically in short supply. Enter suet cakes as high energy replacements for insect-eating birds. Fat is great for birds, especially in the colder months when they are looking for the most caloric bang for their buck. Since suet contains far more calories than birdseed, birds won’t have to work as hard to consume enough energy to keep them warm. By adding seeds, raisins, berries, and nuts, you are increasing their opportunity to ingest as many calories as possible with the least amount of effort.
Making suet cakes is easy and very customizable. You can add in some peanut butter, rolled oats, cornmeal, and other seeds. The only thing to remember is that whatever goes into the suet cake should be most beneficial to the bird.
DIY Wild Bird Suet Cakes
2 cups of tallow/suet/saved meat or bacon drippings
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup shelled roughly chopped peanuts
1 cup raisins
In double boiler, melt fat. Once liquefied, add the dry ingredients. Stir well.
At this point you can pour it onto a lined baking sheet (with sides, of course!) or into silicone molds. You could also go super old school and pour into clean tuna cans. Refrigerate until solid. If you youse a baking pan, remove suet and cut up into chunks.
To hang your suet, the easiest (and cheapest) method I’ve been successful with is by putting the suet cake into an empty mesh onion bag. It works well and prevents the suet cake from falling apart as quickly. It also gives the birds something to get a little purchase on. I keep the suet cake close to my regular bird feeder, because it’s in a spot that the birds will see and high enough off the ground to protect them from predators.
Enjoy the fruits of your labour!