An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Birds Keeping Warm

1-3-18 dark-eyed junco2 049A1736

Birds utilize a number of behavioral adaptations that afford them some protection from frigid air such as we have been experiencing lately. They include sunning (turning their backs to the sun, exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat), shivering, tucking (placing one foot up inside feathers while standing on other leg, or squatting to cover both legs and feet with feathers; tucking their bill into their shoulder feathers and breathing air warmed by their body), roosting together in small groups (often in a small cavity, so as to conserve heat) and, most obvious of all, fluffing themselves up (creating air pockets that are warmed by body heat).

While feathers serve many purposes, from helping to attract a mate to providing camouflage, one of the most important jobs they have in winter is to keep a bird warm and dry. A bird’s body heat (the average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit), warms the air between its feathers. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible, as the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. They can appear two or three times larger than they appear on a 32 degree day. This insulation is effective because it also is a barrier to water. The oil that birds apply to their feathers when they preen serves to waterproof the feathers. (Photo: Dark-eyed Junco)

12 responses

  1. Sharon Wogaman

    Love your reminders to be aware of the behaviors I observe while watching the visitors to the feeders or snowshoeing through the woods. Your posts are so timely.

    January 3, 2018 at 8:25 am

  2. Could you explain foot circulation that allows birds, esp do is to keep their foot warm

    January 3, 2018 at 8:56 am

  3. I am constantly baffled by wildlife’s ability to survive bitterly cold weather, perhaps especially, the tiny (“homeless”) birds!

    January 3, 2018 at 9:11 am

  4. Annie McCleary

    huddling thermogenesis!

    January 3, 2018 at 9:23 am

  5. Alice Pratt

    Amazing fluffy-feather-birds. Hanging dish feeders with very yummy birdseed, seed on the ground, raw beef suet & dried meal worms in a sheltered window feeder & 2 dense spruce trees seem to keep my yard very popular with all the birds and at least 5 ravenous squirrels.

    January 3, 2018 at 9:40 am

  6. We have a lot of ducks visit the shore and yard every day, and it’s been interesting to watch them and their various behaviors. Like you said in your post, they do fluff up and cover their feet with their feathers. On the coldest days, they will walk[waddle] a few feet, then plop down to a sitting position, with their feet hidden under their feathers, then a few minutes later, they will again walk a short way and plop down again. They don’t make much headway, but it does keep their feet wear!
    I have not seen them cluster close together for warmth, other than when their clumped up to eat.

    I love it when they fly in, and as they land on the snow, they slide across it as they do landing in the water; but on the snow, if it’s downhill, they slip snd slide as if on a sled.

    I never get tired of watching them. I am concerned about the big storm tomorrow, thursday the 4th.. What do they do for cover?

    January 3, 2018 at 9:46 am

  7. Inge

    How do I donate?

    January 3, 2018 at 11:50 am

    • Hi Inge,
      You can go to my blog ( and click on the “donate” button, or you can send a check made out to me to 134 Densmore Hill Road, Windsor, VT 05089. Thank you so much!

      January 3, 2018 at 7:16 pm

  8. Susan Fraser

    During the winter of 2004 I had the good fortune to observe a white breasted nuthatch from my window. He arrived late in the afternoon, perched on an oak branch and sunned himself in the strong western sun. Then, much to my surprise, just before sunset he went to the end of the broken branch and backed into the hole there. I could barely see the top of his head. Early the next morning I looked and found him gone. He returned each night, to the same routine, throughout the winter months. He did not return 3 different nights, which caused me to worry and wonder. I suspect he left his bed very early both to find food and to find a sunny place since the eastern sun did not shine on his nest branch.
    I felt so privileged to be able to observe this.

    January 3, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    • That is SO cool. I would love to see that!

      January 3, 2018 at 6:07 pm

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