How Do Birds Survive Cold Winters?


by Garth Clifford, ©2020

Photo: tlparadis, Pixabay, License

(Feb. 13, 2020) — While winters and birds make a pretty sight for a camera lens, some of us do wonder how the little creatures survive extreme winters. We don’t see them wearing any warm clothes or heaters installed in their habitats. Some birds do travel south in winter, but many of them still linger all year round. So how do they survive during mean temperatures?

Birds are similar to humans when it comes to body temperature. They, too, are warm-blooded creatures and maintain constant body temperature like us. Birds often have an approximate body temperature of 106 degrees F. To protect their tiny bodies against unforgiving winters, the smart creatures have evolved their own strategies over time, some quite similar to the ones human beings use.


The feathers covering the little body of the birds are not mere props for your camera wildlife lens. They are the sources of insulation and warmth for birds when temperatures turn freezing. Some birds even grow a couple of extra feathers to keep extra warm during the winter months.

Furthermore, there are certain birds whose feathers contain an oily coating as an extra source of insulation as well as protection against moisture and wetness. Birds also have the ability to fluff their feathers up so that they can make air pockets. These air pockets too are sources of extra insulation.

Extra fat storage

When the winter season draws closer, birds start increasing their fat consumption and growing their fat reserves. They use these reserves during the cold temperatures for extra energy, which also helps them produce more body heat. They continue the practice of storing fats during the short winter days to keep warm during the long nights.

Leg movement

Birds tend to lose their body heat through their feet and legs. Some birds are equipped with certain types of scales on their legs, which help in minimizing their heat loss.

On the other hand, other birds practice standing on one leg or tucking in their feet and legs inside their feathers in order to reduce the heat loss.

The heat from the sun

When the days are sunny in winters, we see birds making the best use of the sunshine. They turn their backs to the bright sun rays and bathe themselves in the heat. Even in cold temperatures, the sun can easily penetrate through the feathers and skin of the birds to warm them up when they are sunbathing.

On certain days we may even notice birds shivering. The purpose of this is the same as in human bodies. Shivering helps in increasing the metabolic rate of birds, which, as a result, increases their body temperature.

Flocking together

In the winter, we see the proverb “birds of a feather flock together” come true. The smaller birds can often be found huddling in large flocks together in close proximity. This helps them to share body heat and collectively warm themselves up.


There is a certain category of birds that go into a state known as torpor during the winters. Torpor is similar to hibernation, in which the birds decrease their body temperatures to conserve their body heat.

Although torpor is helpful in conserving their body heat, at the same time, it also makes the birds vulnerable to predators lurking close to their habitats. In this state, birds tend to have a slow reaction time comparatively.

Seek shelter

Certain birds, such as sparrows and some others, also seek shelter in cavities and dense foliage in extreme temperatures. They also minimize their total area by squeezing deep into their own bodies and sticking their feathers out.

Small birds such as sparrows and cardinals make a shelter within their own bodies to protect against the chill. They puff themselves up into a beach-ball like a shape that conserves their body heat.


Some birds are really tough opponents of freezing temperatures. Take chickadees, for example. These birds are champions in shivering, which is one fine strategy to wade off the chills. Birds make themselves shiver by causing their opposing groups of muscles to activate.

This action causes muscle contractions minus the jiggling, which is typical of human shivering. This form of shivering is not just artistic but also helps retain the bird’s body heat quite efficiently.


Beautiful birds in plain sight usually have us leaping for our digital cameras and photographers aiming their camera lens like wildfire; in truth, however, they are so much more than creatures that invite our wonder and awe.

That they can fight against the deadly winter chills in some of the coldest countries of the world, with their little bodies, is applause-worthy and something we all need to take great inspiration from.



Garth Clifford is an editor of WorldBirds and a full-time birding enthusiast. His purpose is to share the beauty of wildlife and share the best tips on how to enjoy birding wherever you are located.

2 Responses to "How Do Birds Survive Cold Winters?"

  1. Rosemary   Friday, February 14, 2020 at 12:46 PM

    Thanks for that great and informative article and the lovely pic of cardinal. My friend loves them and says every time she sees one it is her son checking up on her from Heaven. They seem to comfort her.
    I always save my stale bread and other crackers, etc. for the birds. They seem to know it is for them and they actually start “talking” to each other as if to say foods here. I often wonder where they go when it is cold.

  2. Nikita's_UN_Shoe   Thursday, February 13, 2020 at 11:33 PM

    A very ‘tweet’ and informative article. Good to know that these feathered friends from the Almighty have the defenses to survive winter freezes. When I feed these feathered critters in the morning, I love it when the blue jays (tattletailers) squawk at me as soon as I open the door. I reward their greeting with already-shelled peanuts and a variety of bird feed including black oil sunflower seeds.


    Now, some lyrics courtesy of master poet, philosopher, songwriter, and singer – Tom T. Hall:

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