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Holiday Spirit Means: Caring for Wild Birds in Cold Climates

Nov 21, 2018 ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo by John Longhenry
















As winter and the holidays approach, so too does the cold weather and snow, making it difficult for some birds to keep warm and well-nourished. But the birds seen in colder climates during winter have special adaptations to help them through the season. Humans can help by feeding birds and providing them shelter.

        Many birds seen in the summer in the Chicago region and throughout the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, some East Coast states and in the Northeast fly south for the winter. Warblers and tanagers, for example, are nearly all strictly insect eaters, and need to go where the critters are still up and around.

        Remaining behind are the northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, woodpeckers, American goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches and other birds that can cope with cold and snowy conditions. Some bird species, like red-breasted nuthatches, American tree sparrows, pine siskins and dark-eyed juncos, fly south from the boreal (far northern) region to spend their winter vacations here.

        These birds cope with winter in different ways; they eat a lot, hang out with their feathered buddies for protection from predators and to find food sources, and seek nooks and crannies to keep out of the wind and cold.

        Some birds, like goldfinches, grow more feathers for insulation. Other birds, including some types of sparrows, huddle together at night for warmth. Cardinals puff their feathers to trap heat next to their bodies, while chickadees shiver to retain heat and are able to reduce their body temperature when sleeping at night to conserve energy.

        Birds also have special adaptations to retrieve food in winter. For example, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers use their long, barbed tongues to extract beetle larvae and overwintering moth and butterfly eggs from beneath tree bark. The tongue is so long that when not in use, it coils behind the skull in order to fit inside the bird’s head.

        Woodpeckers have two clawed toes pointing forward and two backward, compared with other birds that have a three-and-one arrangement. These special feet help woodpeckers grasp the sides of trees while searching for food other birds might not be able to get.

        Juncos and tree sparrows, both winter visitors, feed on the ground. When snow piles high in the north, they head south, where prairie grasses, wildflowers and shrubs still have seeds clinging to them they can reach for sustenance. Some birds, like chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches and woodpeckers, cache or hide food in tree crevices to create a pantry to visit in winter. When inclement weather makes it difficult for them to find food, they search for their hidden meals. Chickadees’ brains actually grow to improve their memories in winter.

        A wide variety of trees and shrubs like winterberry and crab-apple hold fruits and berries during fall, into winter and sometimes even throughout the winter. Robins eat worms in spring and summer, but some can survive the winter in cold climes by eating berries. Cedar waxwings also eat berries. A beautiful holiday treat is seeing them hovering at backyard trees and shrubs loaded with fruit.

        Feeding birds helps them survive in winter. Feeders stocked with sunflower oilers, which have a high fat content, attract blue jays, chickadees, cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Those that feed birds might observe blue jays swallowing 10 or more seeds per visit, and then flying away to hide them for later use. Goldfinches eat oilers, but they also eat thistle seeds. In winter, those seeds might also attract pine siskins and even the rarer common redpolls. Nuthatches, blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers also eat peanuts and suet from feeders.

        Scattering a bit of seed or cracked corn on areas cleared of snow after a storm will entice juncos and tree sparrows. Check to see if a local nature center or forest preserve district is having a bird seed sale—they can provide advice on the best offerings for birds in winter.

        Decorative foods for birds, such as a snowman seed ornament or bird seed wreath, can be purchased or made from scratch. Making these can be a great indoor project for children and adults, and recipes are available online. Either way, these ornaments can be hung outdoors in strategic places to give birds a holiday treat. A potted evergreen tree, a large branch on a deciduous tree and sturdy branches on shrubs serve as places to hang holiday ornament treats for birds. Observe the birds and how they use the trees and food, whether in feeders or hanging as ornaments, and position them so squirrels and other mammals can’t get to them.

        Creating winter shelter can be done by making brush piles, as well as placing real wreaths and Christmas trees outdoors in the backyard after the holidays are over. These offer safe havens for birds to roost or hide from predators.

        Providing food and shelter is not only a treat for birds, but also for humans that love watching avian antics on cold, snowy days.


Sheryl DeVore is the author of four books on birds, including Birds of Illinois and Northern Flights. She also writes nature and science articles for national and regional publications. Contact her at [email protected].


Getting Involved


Many Chicago region organizations welcome volunteers to help restore and protect natural areas. They typically loan gloves and equipment such as pruning shears and will train volunteers, says Zachary Salus, an intern with the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

        Participants should dress in layers and wear close-toed shoes. Contact local natural areas to learn when work days are scheduled and to register. “Don’t be shy. We’re always looking for people. It’s all about the manpower,” says Salus.

Here are some places to check:


Citizens for Conservation (

Cook County Forest Preserve District (

Lake County Forest Preserve District (

Lake Forest Open Lands Association (

Lake Bluff Open Lands Association (

Land Conservancy of McHenry County (

McHenry County Conservation District (

Openlands (