Where Birds Sleep

A reader writes:

Dear Diane: I just about freeze when I go out to fill my bird feeders. And I wonder where the birds go at night. Why don't they freeze to death? —Tiffany D., Portland, OR

It is pretty amazing, that a wild bird whose whole body is an inch thick can preserve enough warmth to survive a winter night. How do they do it?

Dead tree

They hole up

A bird that finds a place to take some of the sting out of the weather wins a bird a better chance of surviving a cold night.

Birds who normally nest in cavities aren't afraid of the dark hole. Bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, kestrels, and screech owls are a few of the birds who will go into a hole in a tree to stay warm. Sometimes many birds will crowd into one hole, sharing their body heat.

Dead trees can save birds' lives on cold nights. This is a good reason to leave snags standing, as long as they are not a threat to life, car, or house. Dead branches on living trees also help birds in this way.

There are better things than a perfectly neat yard. At least from the point of view of birds. Which makes it better from my point of view also. One of those better things is a yard full of bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, kestrels, and screech owls!  

They get in the thick of it

Snowy Juniper

Some birds won't go into a hole no matter how cold the night. But they still need shelter. As evening comes on, such birds are looking for a place out of the wind.

Evergreens let a bird slip deep into the tree. The thick foliage of evergreens such as Northern Red Cedar will block wind, rain, and snow. Snow and ice bend the crown down and accumulte there, making a nice igloo for the birds.

Even loose a pile of brush can offer a night's protection, when snow covers it and makes chambers inside. This is often the choice of sparrows and other birds who habitually feed on or near the ground.

They stoke the furnace before bed

Birds need to fuel their bodies with calories before facing a night of fasting. That's why bird feeders become busy places on a late afternoon, especially when the weather is very cold. Food is warmth. It's like logs in the fireplace.

Grey-headed Coneflower

So I try to make time to refill any feeders that are running out of food in the afternoon. I want to make sure every bird who comes to my yard looking for a meal before night will find the nourishment it needs.

It's also vital to provide natural, wild-grown food in the form of grasses and flower seeds. Many birds are too shy to come to a feeder. There's also the possibility that for some reason I might not be able to fill the feeders in the evening. 

So I also leave the seedheads of flowers to provide winter food, such as Gray-headed Coneflowers and other plants that make seeds that persist into winter. To me, the flowers look faded or past it. But they provice a meal that means life to a small bird on a cold night.