Cold Snap Will Be A Killer For Birds, Group Warns

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the nation’s leading bird conservation groups, is reminding people that we’re not the only ones suffering in the cold gripping much of the nation. This weather can be deadly to birds, some of which are being driven farther south than normal in search of open water and sources of food.

“Birds can survive the kind of severe weather we are seeing, but only if they get needed food and water,” said Dr. Daniel Lebbin, a conservation biologist at ABC. “Their ability to stay warm in frigid temperatures requires them to eat sufficient food.” Putting out extra food on bird feeders and on the ground, including suet and fruit for birds that don’t normally eat seeds, can make the difference between life and death for some birds.

Dr. Lebbin said that an ice-free water supply is also critical and often attracts birds that don’t visit feeders. “Water is just as important as food, if not more so. By providing warm water frequently, or installing a bird-bath heater, people can help the birds out substantially during severe weather events,” he noted.

Weather events such as what is being experienced now are not unusual, Dr. Lebbin added, and are not expected to significantly affect wild bird populations. However, he added that taking steps to mitigate the expected mortality on birds is something his organization is routinely asked about when the weather breaks bad.

“People care about birds and other wildlife in this country. We get calls all the time from people wanting to know what they can do to protect our wildlife. Right now, there is a greater sense of urgency,” he said.

Waterfowl are affected greatly when the water bodies they depend on freeze over. In response, birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and mergansers normally escape such danger by traveling further south to find ice-free water. Ground-feeding birds such as cardinals and sparrows are also affected when snow covers the ground and stays in place, reducing available food resources. Prairie-chickens, on the other hand, will dive into deep snow where they can keep much warmer unexposed to colder surface temperatures and wind chill. Kinglets will huddle together at night to keep warm. These tiny birds are able to more efficiently conserve heat by crowding together.

“The impacts of the intense cold are complex, but there is no question that there will be mortality for birds and other wildlife. It is a part of nature. How much mortality will be a function of the intensity of the freeze, how long it lasts, and the birds’ condition. Providing food and water might help some birds better survive this deep chill,” he said.

“Homeowners can also plant native trees and shrubs in their gardens that will provide food and shelter to wild birds year-round. Plants that bear fruit or provide seeds in the winter are an especially helpful resource to birds,” added Dr. Lebbin. 

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