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Big Birds

blue jay puffed out in snow 101Is your bird feeder being visited by gigantic Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees during this cold spell? Your eyes aren’t fooling you; birds often appear larger in very cold weather.
Birds that remain in New England year round must not only be able to find enough food in the winter to produce heat and energy, they must find a way to retain the heat. Various strategies have evolved, but feather structure and function play an important role for the winter survival of all birds. There are different types of feathers, each designed for a different function. A (wing or tail) feather consists of a central, hollow shaft on either side of which are many interlocking rows of barbs. The feathers that cover the body of a bird (contour feathers) often have interlocking barbs only at the ends, on the part not covered by an overlapping feather. The bottom-most, unconnected barbs on these feathers are similar to those of down feathers – loose and fluffy. When the temperature dips, birds often puff out their contour feathers (making the birds look huge). This action, and the structure of the bottom portion of the contour feathers,
increase the number and size of air pockets between the bird’s feathers and its skin. This space provides excellent insulation, preventing much of the bird’s body heat from escaping.

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14 responses

  1. Mary, I assume you took this picture? It is so gorgeous, looks like a painting! Simply beautiful.

    January 8, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    • Thank you so much, Robin. Yes, I did take it, during a snow flurry. The jay gets the credit, not me!

      January 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm

      • The jay gets credit for being stunning, but you definitely get credit for capturing it. It’s hard to take my eyes off it because I want to keep looking at every detail.

        January 8, 2014 at 1:59 pm

  2. Jennifer Waite

    Boy that blue jay looks proud of himself for his ingenuity in the face of such chilling weather – wonderful picture!

    January 8, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    • Thanks so much, Jennifer — you’re absolutely right about his/her expression!

      January 8, 2014 at 9:28 pm

  3. Mary, that is definitely an award-winning photo – simply awesome!

    January 8, 2014 at 10:11 pm

  4. Susan Holland

    I love that photo! He actually looks warm – amazing!

    January 8, 2014 at 10:30 pm

  5. Thanks for the explanation. I knew birds puffed out their feathers to stay warm but didn’t know quite how it works. This photo is absolutely gorgeous by the way . You should enter it a photo contest.

    January 8, 2014 at 11:45 pm

  6. Beautiful picture:)

    January 9, 2014 at 1:33 am

  7. Pat

    Thanks for this post. I was just guessing yesterday when my red-bellied woodpecker looked like it was all fluffed up for insulation, so it’s nice to have this confirmed and explained in detail.

    January 9, 2014 at 9:05 pm

  8. Karen and Rendell Tullar


    Do you know if the Hermit Thrush overwinters in New Hampshire? Have a crabapple tree near our house and have seen what looks like a hermit thrush earting the berries???

    January 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    • Yes, it could well be a Hermit Thrush you saw eating berries. Although most Hermit Thrushes breeding in New England migrate a short distance south of N.E., a few individuals do overwinter in New Hampshire. You might let your local Audubon chapter know, or report it on NH eBird, as I don’t believe it’s a common sighting.

      January 10, 2014 at 9:57 pm

  9. Pat

    That is interesting to know about Hermit Thrushes. Perhaps that explains why I often see them much earlier than I would expect to in the spring.

    January 11, 2014 at 5:21 am

  10. Karen and Rendell Tullar


    We live by Reed’s Marsh in Orford, NH. I rescued a painted turtle yesterday afternoon crossing Rt. 10 towards the Marsh. When I returned it to the water, there we “multiple millions” of snails in the water. They are about l-l/2″ round – do you know what these are? Are they good for waterways or ponds? Someone said there is an invasive species of snails in the area. Any info would be appreciated.

    Karen Tullar

    July 3, 2014 at 5:45 pm

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