How Do Chickadees Survive Winter?

The Black-capped Chickadee is one of the most common birds in the northern half of North American meaning you have probably seen one or many in your backyard.

Since these birds are so common, you might have noticed they’re still around eating from birdfeeders. But shouldn’t they be migrating by now?

Most birds have migrated or are in the process of migrating but not every bird migrates. Some have adaptations which allow them to live in cold places during the winter. Chickadees are an example of a bird who stays around for the winter months. They have special adaptations so they can stay warm during the winter.

bird on feederopens IMAGE file

House Finch at the Nature Center.

There are a handful of other birds who also don’t migrate during winter that have adaptations which help them to thrive during the winter.

Some of these birds are the:

  • House finch
  • House Sparrow
  • American Goldfinch
  • Pine Siskins
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Cardinals
  • Dark-eyed Juncos
  • American Robins
  • European Starlings

Some of these birds change where they nest. Instead of nesting in a tree, they might find some dense foliage or a cavity in a tree where it’s easier to stay protected from the elements. Others store food to help the change in their eating habits and some put on heavier down, winter coats of their own.

The chickadees must eat enough food, high in fats to gain at least 10 percent of their body weight in a day. They do this so they have enough energy to make it through the night. They go into what is called, regulated hypothermia which allows the bird to lower its normal body temperature to conserve energy. This is where they use that 10 percent extra body weight.

Not all birds do this but it’s one of the most innovative ways for a bird to survive during winter. Some birds put on down coats. There’s a reason some people wear coats filled with down during the winter. The lighter, puffy feathers are able to trap the warmth produced by the body to keep the bird warm.

Many birds put on some sort of layer of fat during the winter to make sure they stay warm. This is where you can help. If you leave your birdfeeders out all winter, make sure to stash them with fatty food sources like sunflower seeds, safflower and peanuts. This will help those birds to gain that extra weight to make it through the night.

Tips to attract chickadees to your yard:

  • Bird feeders with sunflower seeds
  • Make sure there is adequate natural cover so the chickadees can hide quickly if they’re spooked. This makes them more comfortable
  • Birdhouses with a 1 ¼ inch entrance hole to provide winter roosts