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How Do Birds Handle Weather? Wet, Cold and Heat

Updated on November 15, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Raining Again

Yep, the Southeast end of Texas has been so wet, we have almost forgotten what sunshine is. It has been so wet, my birds evacuated to unknown parts ahead of a flash flood warning. All I had today at my feeders was one Mourning Dove.

It seems like the birds disappear when we have long spells of rain. I often wonder where they go? It isn’t just me; other birders ask themselves this too; birders all over the world ask the same question. Just check the internet and see. We wonder the same thing about how birds deal with other weather too, so let’s talk about birds and weather.

Foster's Tern

Foster's tern sleeking his feathers to keep out the drizzle.
Foster's tern sleeking his feathers to keep out the drizzle. | Source

How Do Birds Handle Rain?

We know that birds aren’t exactly helpless in the rain. Most birds have oils in their feathers that make them water resistant. In light showers, they fluff up to increase the air pockets under their feathers to keep warm. In down pours, they will sleek down their feathers to keep water from soaking in. Also, despite our jokes about bird brains, they are smart enough to take shelter when the weather is bad.

In urban areas, check under the awnings and covered walkways of the local shopping centers. You will see them huddled together against a storm. They also go for the thick hedges we line our homes and walk areas with. We can’t see them in there easily, but I’ve seen dozens of birds dive into a Red-tipped Photinia hedge in drizzly weather. They also head into the deeper brambles of forests. The heavy tangles of wild grapes and other vines make good cover on a wet day.

Hurricane Diagram

Diagram of a Hurricane showing the 'Bird Cage' effect in the eye of the storm.
Diagram of a Hurricane showing the 'Bird Cage' effect in the eye of the storm. | Source

How Do Birds Handle Hurricanes?

When big storms brew, Kevin Coyle of the National Wildlife Federation states that “sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed. Shorebirds often move to inland areas early, taking note of barometric pressure changes. Those that don’t get away are often caught in the center of hurricanes. The eye of the storm with its fast-moving walls of intense wind can form a massive “bird cage” holding birds inside the eye until the storm dissipates. It is often the eye of the storm that displaces birds, more than strong winds.”

Flamingo Shelter

Flamingos Sheltering in a Bathroom during Hurricane Floyd 1999.
Flamingos Sheltering in a Bathroom during Hurricane Floyd 1999. | Source

But when they can, birds will take shelter where ever it is available. Flamingos at the Miami-Metro Zoo took refuge in a bathroom as winds from Hurricane Floyd approached in 1999.

Songbirds and woodland birds have their own way of dealing with harsh storms. These birds will clinch up on their perches. No, I don’t mean they hold tighter than usual. Kathleen Kudlinski explains that, “when a bird lands and bends its legs, their toes automatically tighten around the branch on which they are perched. This holds them in place during high winds (or when they sleep.) To take off, birds must make an effort to release the ligaments and unclench their toes.” So, during a bad storm, birds are not hanging on for dear life. They are actually relaxing! Woodpeckers and other cavity nesters will, barring the destruction of the tree itself, ride out storms in tree holes.

Finches on Ice

Wintering Gold Finches on an iced over table.
Wintering Gold Finches on an iced over table. | Source

How Do Birds Handle Severe Cold?

As most birders know, not all birds head south for the winter. Some of our favorite backyard birds stay in the same area they were born all year or choose to migrate on a periodic schedule.

  1. One advantage birds have is their high normal body temperatures. The average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Some birds also add feathers during their late Fall molt to combat chilly winters.
  3. Their anatomy also comes to the rescue of their exposed feet. Birds’ legs and feet are covered with specialized scales that protect them from heat loss.
  4. If necessary, birds can also constrict blood flow to their extremities to reduce heat loss.
  5. As with other animals, birds also gorge during the fall to build up an extra fatty layer before winter arrives.
  6. Birds also have behavioral methods of handling cold. As with rain, birds will fluff up when it snows. The oils in their feathers will help keep out the moisture.
  7. They will stand on one leg tucking one into their feathers to warm it and then alternate. When this isn’t enough, they just drop down, tucking both legs into their feathers.
  8. When it is really cold, birds of a feather will flock together, huddling close to keep warm.
  9. Birds also shiver, which raises their metabolic rates.
  10. On sunny cold days they will take advantage of solar heat by turning their backs to the sun to soak up warmth.

And if these things don’t work?

Melissa Mayntz explains about another specialized tactic.

“Many birds will enter torpor to conserve energy during cold winter nights. Torpor is a state of reduced metabolism when the body temperature is lowered, therefore requiring fewer calories to maintain the proper heat. Most birds can lower their body temperature by a few degrees, but torpid birds have lowered their body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees. Torpor can be a dangerous behavior, however, as the reduced temperature also leads to reduced reactions and greater vulnerability to predators. Hummingbirds, chickadees, swifts and other types of birds regularly use torpor as a way to survive cold temperatures.”

Putting It to the Test

In the video below, we see an eagle putting many of the above coping skills to the test. This eagle's naturally high temperature helped keep her warm even as the snow piled up. Shivering likely helped keep her metabolism up as she stayed stationary with the eggs and fluffing and crouching trapped warmer air under her feathers to keep her, her legs and eggs warm. Also, allowing the snow to cover her like this actually provided shelter from freezing air and winds. Under the snow, she was insulated, as if she had built an igloo for the purpose.

Eagle Using Winter Skills

Winter Foraging

Titmouse with a Peanut - Feeding birds peanuts in the fall helps prepare them for winter.
Titmouse with a Peanut - Feeding birds peanuts in the fall helps prepare them for winter. | Source
Cedar Waxwing Foraging on Yaupon Holly Berries.
Cedar Waxwing Foraging on Yaupon Holly Berries. | Source
Yellow-rumped Warbler gathering Pokeweed berries.
Yellow-rumped Warbler gathering Pokeweed berries. | Source

Feeding Winter Birds

If you have severe winter weather and lots of wintering birds, the best suggested feeds are those that will offer the best high calorie bang. These include:

  • Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
  • Nyjer
  • Suet Cakes
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Fruit

The suggestion of fruit plays to a wintering bird’s normal behavior of hunting for berries in the fall. Offer things like Apple slices, Orange sections, Bananas and grapes with seeds.

Peanut butter? Yes, it is good for birds. Most birders will spread it on tree trunks or branches for the birds to eat.

Home owners can also plant fruit bearing trees and shrubs. In Texas, some of the best winter bird foods to plant are:

  1. American Beauty Berry
  2. Yaupon Holly
  3. Pokeweed
  4. Elderberries
  5. American Holly
  6. Junipers
  7. Sumac

How Do Birds Handle Heat?

As we are all pining for the end of winter and the return of our Spring birds, we should also take a look at how birds handle heat. Last summer I was out before 8 a.m. in the morning watering plants because of the heat. The temperature gauge read 90 degrees most mornings after mid-May. I know I was badly beaten down by such temperatures, and so were the birds; but some of the same things that let them survive the cold have helped them handle heat as well.

  1. A bird’s higher body temperature serves to give them a higher tolerance for heat.
  2. They keep cool through high respiration rates and behavior like panting.
  3. The bare skin on their legs and feet, fleshy eye rings and even beaks help birds dissipate heat.
  4. Fluffing feathers is an all-weather mechanism. In winter it traps air to warm their bodies. In the summer it traps air to cool them. Holding their wings out will also accomplish this.
  5. Birds of prey will soar to higher altitudes where air temperatures are much cooler.
  6. Like us, birds also look for shade, water and become less active during the hottest part of the day.

Sheltering from Heat

Young Gulls taking shelter from July Heat
Young Gulls taking shelter from July Heat | Source

The underside of my deck has been a popular bit of shade cover for Hummingbirds, Cardinals and others. Unused tomato cages turned into their favorite rooting places. In the picture to the right, young Hermann's Gulls took shelter from the July sun in a researcher's shack .

How We Can Help Birds in the Summer?

Home backyard habitat keepers and even apartment patio owners can help the birds and other animals out by providing some form of water feature to their outdoor areas. This can include something as simple as a bowl, a large shallow dish, a bird bath or a fountain. This is highly important during drought conditions and much appreciated when the temps are up like they were last summer.

Simple Water Care Tips

  • Spray out your shallow containers daily to avoid incubating mosquitoes.
  • Clean out larger containers, such as fountains, regularly to keep down algae blooms.
  • A small amount of bleach and a scrubber pad will kill algae that grows into textured containers. Rinse well before refilling with fresh water.
  • Algae can also be prevented with chemical inhibitors.

Not all such products are bird safe. Make sure you get bird safe products if adding algae inhibitors to water bowls or fountains.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • Sherry Thornburg profile image

      Sherry Thornburg 2 years ago from Kern County California

      Mark, you touch on an article I'm researching for. What triggers bird migration.

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 2 years ago from Italy

      Birds have their ability to detect weather patterns and even magnetic poles on the planet as their compass. Thanks for sharing tips on summer care for birds.

      Voted up and find it interesting.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Great info. Birds are fascinating creatures to watch, and I've often wondered how they survive harsh conditions. This was enlightening. I enjoyed reading it.