“Knowing how” saves energy

Survival strategies of the native bird world in winter

Cold, lack of food, icy waters – our native birds have to deal with many dangers in winter. But a large number of them survive this inhospitable time with the help of ingenious survival strategies.

Crested tit in winter – Photo: Frank Derer

Knowing how saves energy
The robin protects itself against frosty temperatures by sitting with its head tucked in, its wings tightly folded and its plumage fluffed up. This is how robins can get their little bodies through long winter nights without frostbite even at minus 15 degrees Celsius.

Dress warmly!
Down feathers are so finely branched that they can hold an entire air cushion on the body. This air heats up the bird body properly. Without this thermal suit, most birds would have frozen to death within minutes in winter. After all, they have to maintain a body temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. Especially with small birds, which often weigh only about ten grams, this is a masterstroke. No wonder, then, that birds attach so much importance to extensive plumage care.

Great spotted woodpecker in winter – Photo: Frank Derer

The modern thermal insulation
Quite up to date with the heat protection is the spotted woodpecker in the city. Instead of moving into cold, laboriously carpentered tree cavities, they use state-of-the-art thermal insulation. Once it has discovered a freshly insulated house facade, it often creates a cozy cave in the soft material in less than half an hour. There he spends the night, well insulated and heated by the human apartment neighbor for free. Most of the time this behavior of a modern city bird doesn’t cause any joy to homeowners because of the structural damage.

Cuddling is relatively rare in our bird world, because it crushes their own warming feathers. But, no rule without exception. Some bird species cuddle up anyway – especially if there’s a cozy sleeping cave available, too. The garden treecreeper is the world champion of cuddling. Up to twenty animals can crowd together in a tree hollow.

Barefoot in the snow?
Protected on top with a thick down jacket, our winter birds stand barefoot in the snow – and still don’t freeze to the branch. The trick is that our birds’ feet are deliberately cold in winter – just a few degrees above freezing point. The snow does not thaw underfoot, and where there is no condensation, nothing can freeze. Birds, unlike us, have no problem with cold feet. They compensate for the temperature difference between the body and feet through a heat exchange system.

Jay in winter – Photo by Frank Derer

Some species of birds stock up on food. The jay, for example. It is particularly busy in autumn, hiding acorns, beechnuts and nuts, usually at the base of trees. When food is scarce in winter, birds live off their reserves. It has a good memory for places and digs out its stores again under thick blankets of snow.

The nuthatch is also a storekeeper. Incessantly fetching grain after grain from the feeder and stuffing it under lichen in the bark of the trees. He thinks his food is well hidden, but he can’t be seen doing it: Other birds save themselves the tedious task of storing food by simply retrieving the nuthatch’s grains and eating them when the nuthatch isn’t around.

Escape from the ice
Not yet fully developed is the strategy of many rails (coot, moorhen) to wait until their home waters are almost frozen over. Only shortly before the birds themselves would freeze, they start a hasty weather escape to look for a still open water body. In cities, water bodies often do not freeze over completely, fortunately. Under bridges and at inlet points other waterfowl gather besides the rails.

Off to the south?
The estimated five billion migratory birds worldwide that fly to warmer climes every year are no role model for us humans threatened by climate change. These birds can avoid cold and lack of food, nevertheless, just our far-traveling bird species, such as barn swallow or cuckoo are becoming rarer and rarer. This is due to the fact that bird migration is becoming more and more dangerous. Many resting areas have now been destroyed by humans and the Sahara, which is difficult to fly over, is becoming increasingly larger due to climate change. Staying at home in winter is therefore becoming more and more attractive for some bird species. Typical migratory birds such as starlings, redstarts and chiffchaffs are therefore being sighted more and more frequently in winter.

native birds

Since in winter the temperature in the city is always somewhat higher than in the surrounding countryside, the chances of survival are increasing. In hard winters many blackbirds, mallards and other birds gather in the city, for which it has become inhospitable in the snowy surrounding countryside. More →

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Over the course of a long winter, the natural food supply for birds diminishes. That is why they are very eager to eat the food offered to them by humans. But what do our birds feed on if this possibility is not available?? More →

National expert committee


The ABBO is concerned with promoting avifaunal and ornithological research, cooperation and exchange of experience .


Birds like it warm, too!

The NABU Brandenburg asks the population not to clean the nesting boxes too early.

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