A Wilder View: How birds survive Montana’s cold winters

Posted at 9:40 AM, Mar 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 11:40:08-05

MISSOULA — Winter is here and there may be fewer birds around, but not every bird migrates south for the winter.

Some species may be making your backyard their winter home and have some pretty neat adaptations to withstand the cold temperatures.

One of the most commonly seen backyard birds is chickadees.

It seems mind-blowing that such a tiny bird is able to survive the winter. They can change their metabolism to add more body fat, which is then used as an energy source to keep them warm.

Chickadees go into a regulated state of hypothermia to lower their body temperature. Dipping 12° to 15° Fahrenheit below their normal body temperature which typically runs at 108° Fahrenheit. This allows them to conserve around 25% of energy per hour when it’s cold outside.

Whether fat, fur, or feathers, insulation matters for most cold-weather wildlife. Like most birds, Canada Geese add more downy feathers to create pockets of warmth. Keeping these layers clean and dry is a major factor in staying warm.

It’s not just cuddle weather for us, it’s for the birds too. Like people cuddling for warmth, small birds often bunch together to share body heat. All this talk of extra layers and cuddling but how do they keep their exposed feet warm? In a process known as countercurrent exchange birds isolate the blood that flows in their feet and legs instead of it flowing throughout their entire bodies.

This helps keep their core temperature warmer. They also have special scales on their feet and legs that help minimize heat loss.

And if you see some birds looking like a flamingo standing on one leg it's for good reason. By standing on one leg birds are better able to retain body heat.

Head out and see how many of these adaptations you can see in action.