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How to find birds in extremely cold weather

birds in extremely cold weather
PUFFBALL: A Golden-crowned Kinglet fluffs its feathers and tucks its bill into its back to stay as warm as possible on a cold day. Art by David Sibley

Extreme cold is one of the toughest conditions for birds to handle. With a small body mass and high body temperature, they have to rely on their feathers for insulation. A layer of feathers less than an inch thick is all they have to separate their 103°F body from outside air as cold as 30°F below or even lower.

Food is critical to replenish fat supplies and fuel their bodies, so you might think that birds would spend a lot of time foraging in the cold. But even more critical is simply staying warm. In the coldest weather, most birds reduce their activity, waking up later and going to sleep earlier, and spend a lot of time just huddled in a sheltered spot. The less they move, the better.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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