How to help birds survive winter in our wildlife gardens

Use a bird’s natural survival instincts to get great photos

An approaching winter storm should be a signal for us to begin preparing to ensure our backyard wildlife will be safe.

Birds use their natural survival instincts to gather in large numbers to stock up on food to survive the coming storm.

Knowing this behaviour creates an opportunity both to photograph a larger variety of birds and, more importantly, provide them with the resources they need to get through these difficult times in our wildlife-friendly and woodland gardens.

So, we know that an important survival tactic backyard birds use to survive winter storms is by stocking up on seeds before the storm makes obtaining food extremely difficult.

Now, let’s explore other tactics they use to cope with severe weather.

So how do birds and animals survive winter?

Birds and other wildlife have several ways of surviving severe winter weather. Our job is to help them take advantage of these built-in survival tactics by providing wildlife-friendly habitats they can use in severe weather. We should provide them with high-value food sources so they can use these hereditary survival tactics to store the food for these difficult times. We need to provide them with evergreens like cedars, where they can go for protection from the winds to conserve heat and energy. Finally, we need to provide reliable water sources.

A male cardinal waits out the first snow of winter in our backyard crabapple tree.

A male cardinal waits out the first snow of winter in our backyard crabapple tree.

Here are five ways to help birds survive severe weather:

1)Provide natural shelters.

2)Provide reliable water sources

3) Put up extra feeders.

4) Add a roosting box

5) Provide high-value food in the form of seed and suet

Birds have built-in survival tactics

How often have you looked out the window in the middle of a major snowstorm with great concern for our feathered friends?

Birds, as well as other woodland creatures, have very specific ways to cope with this severe weather.

Birds survive by focusing on three survival tactics: Finding a safe location to ride out the storm; long-term adaptation to severe temperatures; and, finally, early preparation for the storm.

A red-breasted woodpecker searches for insects in the bark of a tree during a winter snowstorm.

A red-breasted woodpecker searches for insects in the bark of a tree during a winter snowstorm.

How birds find shelter in a storm

Birds are well aware of the existing microhabitats in and around where they live. A thick cedar hedge where they can tuck into and escape winds and heavy snow is ideal for many small- and medium-sized birds.

Larger birds might simply find a tree branch or even a building on the downwind side of a tree to protect themselves from wind, snow, heavy rains and even extreme cold.

Mature spruce, hemlock and pine trees are also excellent places for larger birds such as owls and hawks to wait out a storm.

Many birds will even go to existing tree cavities or birdhouses to seek protection. It’s important that we leave these snags (or dead and dying trees) up in our gardens to act as natural safe havens from storms and other severe weather conditions.

The growing importance of roosting boxes

The growing popularity of commercial or DIY roosting boxes is a sign of how important they have become for our feathered friends. One of the biggest problems birds face, especially those living in an urban or suburban environment, is the loss of nesting habitat created by dead and dying trees (snags).

Too many homeowners and even municipalities are removing every sick, dying or dead tree, eliminating tree cavities that are vital for the survival of many cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, bluebirds, Tufted Titmouses, chickadees, Kestrels, owls, the Prothonotary warbler and even several ducks including the wood duck and mergansers. Whenever possible, it is best to leave these older trees in your yard even if it means removing some of the more dangerous branches but leaving the main trunk for the birds.

“Feed the birds in winter; in return, they will feed your soul with the look of gratitude!”
— Mehmet Murat ildan

As the Canadian Wildlife Federation explains on its website: Some species, like the Eastern Bluebird, once faced serious decline because of the dwindling number of natural cavities available to them, but rebounded because of nesting box programs organized throughout their range.”

Bird houses and roosting boxes are stepping in to replace many of these missing tree cavities.

Although birds will use regular nesting boxes to escape severe weather, roosting boxes are designed to offer more birds an escape from harsh weather, and a potentially warmer environment than even a birdhouse can provide.

Not only are the roosting boxes larger – designed to fit more birds into them – the entrance hole is often located at or nearer the bottom of the box rather than the top where warmth generated from the other birds using the unit would escape. These two factors, in addition to an abundance of perches for the birds, can create a warm and comfortable place to ride out the storm.

Owl box conversion to roosting box

The importance of roosting boxes has convinced me to convert an existing screech owl box into a roosting box for the winter. I think one owl box on our property is probably sufficient, so our second box will be getting a small makeover involving putting in several twiggy branches to give the birds places to perch on and caulking the box to hold in more heat. The entrance hole is already closer to the centre of the box than the top, so it should hold the heat sufficiently.

Tufted Titmouse sits in crab apple patiently waiting its turn at the bird feeder.

Tufted Titmouse sits in crab apple patiently waiting its turn at the bird feeder.

Five ways we can help birds survive winter

1) Natural shelters: Provide a cedar hedge or plant other natural habitat where backyard birds can escape to during inclement weather. A large cedar hedge provides sheltered places for birds during cold spells and even extremely hot times of year. They also provide food in the form of insects and seeds as well as excellent nesting habitat. During severe weather, consider hanging a bird feeders in the cedars so birds can get food without expending too much energy wandering far from their roosting spot.

2) Water source: Don’t forget to provide birds with a reliable source of water during difficult weather. Although the birds can likely get drinking water from the snow, they still need to keep their feathers clean and in top shape to provide the insulation they need to maintain their body heat. There is some evidence that suggests birds bathing in extremely cold weather could get into trouble if water on their feathers freezes. Take precautions to provide access to a birdbath that allows the bird to drink without having to get wet. A gentle slope into the heated birdbath or rocks where they can perch to get a drink are good choices.

3) Extra Feeders: Ensure your feeders are full and accessible. Often, snow covers critical areas of your feeders making it difficult for the birds to access the food. This is particularly important with tray feeders that can quickly get covered with snow burying the seed. Consider adding an extra feeder during difficult times to accommodate additional birds that may be counting on them for survival.

4) Roosting boxes: Provide roosting boxes and leave your nesting boxes up throughout the winter to give birds a place to hide out storms. If possible, seal up any air vents of your traditional nesting boxes in an attempt to hold more heat in the birdhouse. Locate houses and roosting boxes in sheltered areas where they get lots of sun to warm the boxes during the day.

5) Provide high value food: Feeding high quality, high fat food sources is always important but takes on a greater importance in severe weather. Fat balls, high-value suet and meal worms will be greatly appreciated by your feathered friends as the weather turns ugly. Providing food in our feeders is certainly a good first step, but natural food sources are also critical for our wildlife. Allowing areas of our garden to naturalize and leaving fallen leaves (earlier post) on the ground encourages insect-eating birds to forage for high-value food sources such as insect larvae, eggs and small mammals that depend on the leaves for winter survival.


Birds are built for bad weather

There are days I go out to fill the feeders and just walking to them chills me to the bone. It doesn’t take long before my frozen fingers are struggling just to open the steel feeder top. It’s often so cold that getting the feeders filled feels like a race against frost bite.

The good news for birds is that they have physical and behavioural adaptations to help them survive throughout the year.

Did you know: Some small birds such as kinglets and chickadees can drop their body temperature and go into controlled hypothermia to save energy.

Birds’ feathers are the first line of defence. Birds fluff their feathers to trap air between their feathers and bodies. The result is a natural layer of insulation, not unlike a down jacket or sleeping bag. The importance is made evident by the fact that birds even tuck their bills under their wing feathers in order to breathe in the warmer air.

Did you Know: Birds have oil producing glands that allow them to preen a coating of waterproof onto their feathers to avoid the down coats getting wet.

Birds are warm-blooded and have a high metabolic rate and so, in winter especially, they must eat regularly to maintain their heart rate. They also need this energy to shiver, which is an important way they generate heat to maintain their body temperature.

Okay, that is all well and good, but as I’m filling the feeder, the chickadees are standing on the cold steel feeder hangers scolding me for taking their food source away for a few short minutes.

How do their feet not stick to the freezing steel? If I so much as touched it, I would need a kettle of hot water to “unstick” my hand.

How does countercurrent actually work?

The birds that come to our feeders have naked feet, (imagine having to live outside in the snow barefoot.) But, a countercurrent blood exchange in the feet helps keep the heat loss to a minimum while preventing frostbite. The Countercurrent blood exchange is complicated but in simple terms: as cold blood runs up the leg from the foot and passes by the arteries, it picks up most of the heat from the arteries through conductance. As it travels, the blood flowing down is cooled, and the blood flowing up is warmed. Thus, by the time arterial blood reaches the foot, it is cool and does not lose too much heat standing in snow, on steel or even in cold water.

In extreme cold, you may also notice a bird warming its feet by alternatively tucking up one of their feet under its feathers, while standing on a single leg.

Putting on weight to fend off a storm

If your feeders are busier than usual, chances are a storm is brewing. The birds seem to know that a higher fat content helps to guarantee them a much better chance of surviving a severe winter storm. When they sense changes in the air pressure you will notice them zeroing in on your bird feeders. (This is a good time to ensure your feeders are full and ready for the onslaught). The birds will eat as much high-fat food at your feeders as possible and then stash as many seeds and nuts as possible in case the severe weather continues for several days.

This brings us back to birds lining up at our feeders prior to and during a snowstorm.

Our backyard birds use it as an opportunity to fatten up before the storm officially grounds them for hours and possibly days before breaking.

We photographers can also use it as an opportunity to focus on the activity of our feeders to capture the birds that are too busy filling up to really care much about our presence.

It’s important not to interfere with their feeding habits at this critical time. If you use a photographic blind or keep a respectable distance the birds will go about their business and provide you with a frenzied feeding situation in a fairy-tale environment of snow-covered branches.

This is the time to get out of your comfort zone (in a warm, dry house) and get out in the snow to capture these special moments that only happen a few times of year.

Dark-eyed junco.jpg

Tips to photograph birds in a snowstorm

If your past attempts of photographing your garden or backyard birds have resulted in dark photographs with a very strong blue cast, you are not alone. In this article, I am going to gear most of the information to amateur photographers. Afterall, most of us are woodland gardeners, not professional bird photographers.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t get some stunning bird shots. The combination of a good snowstorm and a Tragopan Photographic Blind can produce some very impressive images without the expense of large telephoto lenses.

However, even today’s modern cameras with advanced exposure technology, struggle to deal with the extreme exposures of snow scenes. The results are almost always underexposed images. Snow scenes almost always have a dark blue tone to them.

But it’s not just the blue tone to the images that detract from the final result.

If you’re photographing a bird in that scene, for example, it will also be underexposed. Depending how much it is underexposed will mean the difference between whether the image can be saved in post processing via Lightroom, photoshop or any other digital photo software you might be using.

Why are my snow shots blue and underexposed?

Photographing a relatively small subject in a sea of white is not always easy. Even with today’s modern cameras, there is no guarantee that you are going to be able to get the proper exposure. The problem is that the camera’s exposure meter is trying to turn the beautiful pure white snow into middle-gray, dirty-looking snow.

If the image was converted to black and white, you would get dirty-gray snow. In colour photography, the image takes on a blue cast reflecting the colour of the sky, much the same as large bodies of water.

Solving the problem is not difficult but it does require some thought. The photographer needs to make an adjustment to the exposure “to put back the white in the snow.”

When shooting in the snow, the photographer needs to overexpose the image by one or two F-stops depending how much snow is in the scene. If, for example, the bird takes up 50 per cent or more of the image, probably no exposure compensation is necessary. If the bird takes up 25 per cent or less of the image, 1-1.5 overexposure would probably be necessary to get the correct exposure.

The beauty of today’s digital cameras is that they allow you to take test shots to help determine the correct exposure. Look for an exposure that gives you fairly clean white snow. Any further compensation could probably be achieved in post processing of the image.

How do you achieve proper exposure compensation

Depending on your camera, achieving exposure compensation usually involves one of three choices.

If you are using a digital SLR in shutter priority mode, use the camera’s suggested exposure setting and then open up the f-stop of the lens 1-2 stops to add more light to the image. (If this sounds like jibberish to you, don’t worry. There is an easier way.)

For most cameras, including DSLRs, there is an exposure compensation dial that allows the photographer to dial in more exposure (+) or less exposure (-). In many point-and-shoot cameras, these settings need to be changed in the camera’s screen settings. I suggest you do that in the house before you even step outside.)

The best way to guarantee a proper exposure is to experiment in the field with these settings. Take some test shots to get a feel for the exposure. Look for white snow. A little blue in the snow is fine. If your image has pure white snow without any detail, you may be overexposing the image a little too much. In that case, it’s probably better to reduce the exposure 1/3 to 1/2 a stop to keep the snow from overexposing. If this too is confusing and overwhelming, don’t worry, there is an even easier way to achieve proper exposure.

On almost all amateur digital cameras, there is a setting for snow scenes. Some are easy to find; others may be buried in the menu of the camera and require going deeper into the menu items until you find the “scenes” module.

Choose snow scenes and you would probably be safe to shoot away. If, however, you are taking closeups of birds, your need for any exposure compensation is probably unnecessary.

I know it can seem complicated and it was when we were shooting film. But the ability to take test shots and see the results immediately on the screen, certainly simplifies the whole process.

Just don’t let the next snowstorm stop you from getting out. It very might well be the best bird photography you ever experienced.

But don’t forget, dress warmly. You’re not a bird.

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Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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