Every year I hear more and more people tell me what to do and what not to do when it comes to feeding birds during the winter.
The most common myths about birds in winter:
- Birds will freeze
- All birds fly south
- If you stop feeding birds, they will die
- Nut butter can kill birds
- You shouldn’t leave hummingbird feeders up past the first week of September
- You should take down birdhouses to keep pests out of them
So what is the truth? Let’s get into the details!
Birds Can Freeze During the Winter
Uh, not really. Birds who remain in cold areas have stored up a lot of fat, just like most animals will. They can also puff out their feathers to keep them warm. They will find shelter and survive.
They also won’t freeze into a suet cage. If you’ve had the chance to look closely at bird feet, you’ll notice that they have scale-like skin and plenty of blood flow in those little feet to keep them from freezing to anything. Freezing takes moisture to be introduced to the situation, and birds are usually dry.
If you notice, birds tend to stop bathing in cold weather, despite what the myth says – that they will get wet and freeze. No, they seem to know better than to take the chance. You may want to add a heated bird bath to help keep fresh water available during the winter, and the birds can bathe if they want – but again, unlike humans, birds usually know when to bathe and when not to bathe.
All Birds Fly South for Winter
No, not all birds. And though some may migrate from one place to another, they don’t all go to tropical zones. Sometimes, if the winter is mild, they’ll stick around. They will stay if the place they nested has enough food to support them.
The reason you don’t see them around as often is that they won’t be on the ground looking for insects in the winter. The ground becomes hard, and the insects go deeper. So they will often begin peeling bark and finding insects in trees rather than on the ground.
You also might not notice the same birds from summer are still around due to plumage changes. Sure, the cardinals strut their stuff all year round. But birds like goldfinches or other canaries will drop their brighter colors and take on a darker or more neutral color in winter. They didn’t fly south, they just got a new wardrobe, and you don’t realize it.
Also, did you know they don’t always fly south? Some birds migrate east, west, and north between winter feeding and roosting grounds and spring nesting grounds. And did you know that not all birds travel in flocks? Most hummingbirds just know when to go and where to go on instinct alone.
Did You Know?
Did you know woodpeckers peck at things in late winter to attract mates? It’s their version of “Hey baby…come over here.” and also “If you’re competition, stay out of my territory!” at the very same time.
If You Don’t Continue to Feed Birds All Winter, They Will Die
No, they won’t. For one thing, you’re not the only person feeding birds. They fly from place to place for food. Secondly, only maybe 25 – 30% of a bird’s food comes from bird feeders. The rest comes from natural foraging. So, if you wind up sick or go out of town for the winter, your yard birds will not suffer.
Though there are occurrences of dependency in wild animals that take food from humans, this usually happens when people are too generous with their offerings or feed the animals the wrong thing – such as ducks taking bread. You may end up seeing the same visitors to your feer daily, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t foraging. They may love your feeder, but they also love getting food on their own most of the time.
You Shouldn’t Leave Hummingbird Feeders Out Through Autumn
This myth has been passed around for as long as I can remember. The idea is that you need to take down all hummingbird feeders by Labor Day in the United States (the first week of September). If you don’t, you’ll encourage hummingbirds to winter instead of migrating.
Not only is this false, but it can be harmful to take in your hummingbird feeders too early. Hummingbirds make their migration alone. Some hummingbirds may not start until later into the fall, and so they need the extra sustenance a feeder can provide. You should take the feeders down after the first few touches of frost and then put them back up in early spring. The same hummingbirds will come back through.
When it comes to the rest of the birds in your backyard, don’t worry about this myth either. Food availability is only one of many driving factors in migration. What you can do is just try and make your feeders more winter-friendly by adding a roof if you need to.
Nut Butter Is Bad for Birds
Some people think that if you put peanut butter out for birds, it will get all in their feathers and even get stuck in their throats. Not only is this not true, but non-salted nut butter can be a great source of healthy fat for birds trying to survive winter. As a matter of fact, I have a great recipe for making a bird feeder using pine cones and peanut butter in an article about feeding birds.
Take Birdhouses Down During the Winter
The myth is that if you leave birdhouses up, it might encourage other animals to use them for shelter. But did you know that birds will use birdhouses to shelter from cold weather? Yes. And considering the openings on a lot of these birdhouses, it will most likely be a bird that shelters there and nothing else.
Because not all bird species are the same, none of these myths can hold up. Birds are very genetically disposed to instinctual patterns but also depend upon changes in weather, food sources, and daylight to help them with making simple decisions about migration or where to find food. What you put out and how shouldn’t be an issue. Just make sure their space is dry and sheltered in the winter – as much as possible.