How Do Birds Get By in 1°F Temperatures?

Mallard-over-frozen-Niagara-River

Mallard Duck

With a Little Help From Their Friends…

Yes, with the windchill of -14° F, I had rosy, red cheeks and very chapped lips as I was out in this weather Friday morning. I drive a Jeep which gets me just about anywhere anytime, and as a long-time skier, this weather is something I dress for and can tolerate.

That is the frozen Niagara River above. The middle of the river runs, but along the banks and out a few hundred feet, it is mostly frozen with little pockets of open water for the ducks. More on ducks coming up.

Male-cardinal-in-snow

Northern Cardinal Male

This weather does not stop the birds, unless they don’t get enough food for the day. That is something I discussed in How Do Birds Weather an Ice Storm. The birds come in numbers when the weather is at its worst. That is when we come to their rescue…

Female-Cardinal-in-the-Snow-4

Northern Cardinal Female

Another couple was bringing them food but did not do more than dump food, then run back to their vehicle. They were not about to hand-feed the birds in this weather, yet watched as I did.

Titmouse-2

Tufted Titmouse

In the image below, the water kicking up from the rapids is turning to ice particles. What looks like steam rising is definitely not.

It was so cold that the snow froze to my lens. It was like ice pellets rather than snow forming icicles on the lens, but I was warm in my ski pants and down parka.

Across-the-Niagara-River

Each time I offered food to the birds, it was like a line up of recipients. They flapped in midair, just waiting until the feeding bird left. Each bird would land on my hand taking its time picking up the biggest or most seeds it could carry. The birds waiting and flapping grew impatient and butted the bird dawdling.

If you never hand-fed birds, read my post Hand Feeding Wild Birds. Make sure you try it on a day such as this to get many varied birds. I almost had the male cardinal land on my hand right after the White-breasted Nuthatch.

Nuthatch-in-Flight

White-breasted Nuthatch

The birds flew to the food as fast as it was available, and I swear, they were showing their gratitude. When I was photographing them, I had a chickadee land on my lens as I was taking a photo of a the White-throated Sparrow. It sat there through taking five photos.

White-Throated-Sparrow-1-3-14

White-throated Sparrow

Seriously, if you want to get serious about getting photos of birds like in this post, try on the worst weather day you have.

Male-cardinal-in-park

Northern Cardinal

At home, I filled the feeders and my pedestal poplar logs 4 times. There were so many cardinals, I could not even count them.

Crow

American Crow

At the Falls, everywhere I walk a group of chickadees and titmice are following me, well actually the bag of food.

Chickadee1-1-14

Black-capped Chickadee

Last night, it was -1° F and the real feel was -21°F.  Birds will use energy very quickly on really cold nights, some smaller birds losing up to 10% of their body weight. My shrubs were like bird hostels these last few nights.

Female-Cardinal-in-snow

Northern Cardinal Female

I feel obligated to bring the birds at the Falls food since I am photographing them all winter. It is almost critical in extremely cold conditions they get more food than normal, even though birds are equipped to withstand most winter weather.

Dark-Eyed-Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Since I like taking photos more of the birds in the wilderness, I feel I owe them something too.

Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Did you notice how many different birds are in this post? I can thank 1° F for that, even a small flock of robins was nearby.

But all is not so warm as 1°F in the Midwest this Sunday. Say a prayer for the people and birds there as temperatures are predicted to get to -31°F in some places with a wind chill of 70 below zero. (source) We will have a warm spell of 34°F while the Midwest is bombarded with arctic air. It hits us Tuesday, so we will see how low we go.

Male-Cardinal-in-Snow--3

Northern Cardinal Male

Well fed, puffy and warm…. and more on birds…

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About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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74 Responses to How Do Birds Get By in 1°F Temperatures?

  1. I concur with your thoughts! We are visiting family in the Midwest right now and it is so cold! I saw a downy woodpecker at the park yesterday who had found some seed on a tree and it looked as it was doing a thankful dance. It devoured the seeds in no time. I do wonder how they manage without the help of people putting out food for them.

  2. shoe1000 says:

    Thank you for such a wonder full post!!

  3. So true as my feed bill can attest to 🙂

  4. Rose says:

    I had no idea you could hand feed wild birds! I suppose then that anyone can do it, but I suspect these birds know you, Donna, and recognize the gentle spirit who means them no harm. Your photos are, as always, spectacular.
    Yes, we’re going to be in for it over the next few days–yesterday I went to the grocery store and library, bought cat food and dog food, and filled all the bird feeders. I think I’m set for staying inside for several days until it warms up!

    • It really is easy, but takes time for them to gain trust. I cannot believe this weather. Yesterday 1° and today 35°. Tuesday’s prediction is back to 1°. Good all the plants are under snow.

  5. Beautiful post, Donna. Your bird shots are incredible and I am going to try hand feeding. But, as you say this is best in very cold weather and I may wimp out with this incredible cold coming to Chicago! But, I do have a feeder out at least. That Tufted Titmouse is just so cute!

  6. Indie says:

    Wow, I didn’t know you could hand feed wild birds, either! What beautiful photos, and how great of you to feed the birds at the falls. I hung out all my feeders before the storm, and the birds are taking full advantage of them. After the storm I had to dig out one of the feeders, as there was so much snow on it that the birds couldn’t get to the seeds. All the poor wildlife with such unusually cold weather in so much of the country!

  7. It got down to -21 here!

  8. Such cute photos. I love the nuthatch doing a swan dive! As you know, I am not sure this weather is unusual, it just hasn’t been like this since the mid 1990s. Back then temperatures below zero were commonplace in winter. I remember that our pipes froze in a bedroom that we didn’t use and kept closed off. When we lived in Maine there was routinely two weeks a winter when the daytime temperature never got above -10 degrees.

    • I can’t remember PA getting as cold and snowy as it does up here. Living there half my life it seemed more mild. 1° yesterday was not the record, but the average for that day is 17°. Not very often does it get that low or below 0°, just like in summer getting to 104°. We seem to be getting more of the extremes. Snow is back after years of very little, I am happy for that. In the link, the story mentioned we may be in for a late Spring with cooler temperatures dragging out longer.

  9. Julie says:

    Great work Donna, your wild birds must really appreciate you. We visited New York a few winters ago and the temperature was 0. I had never experienced that type of bone chilling cold before, anywhere. Its amazing that the smaller birds survive your Niagara Falls temperatures. There must be many casualties coming with the forecast midwest deep freeze too.

  10. bethstetenfeld says:

    I think we should rename you “Donna Doolittle”! 😉 Yes, we are in for an arctic blast during the next few days here in the Midwest. Needless to say, I will not be going outside except to get the mail. And even then, I will bundle up with a warm coat, scarf, big boots, and heavy gloves! I, too, am amazed that these wonderful winged creatures can survive this brutal cold. I also marvel at the survival of perennials, although I’m very thankful for the snow blanket that we have covering them now. Stay warm, Donna!

  11. I loved all your photos as well Donna, but I especially loved the ones along the Niagara River. So beautiful with the ice crystals in the air. I love your blog and look forward to each issue.

    • The river is really frozen this year. Places that break off from the river and flows back again are completely frozen, even the smaller waterfalls. I tried getting photos, but it just looks like snowy land. I will have to show them side by side for the effect.

  12. mazza18467 says:

    I dare not to complain about the winter any more we have a sea climate, and here it is still 44,6 F.
    our birds will never be so tam as yours. I love the nuthatch,. we have a different coloured one but it is definitely the same species.
    http://mazza18467.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/kranenbroek-op-zoek-naar-de-boomklever/

    • That might be true that the warmer weather will keep birds from being tame, yet in Costa Rica, the hummingbirds would land on us at their feeders, yet they had all the flowers they wanted.I guess it depends on the bird species too.

  13. Debbie says:

    Donna, Thanks for sharing those terrific photos. I’ve never tried hand feeding wild birds before but I think I may give it a try one day. I wish you’d had a fellow photographer along so we could have seen some shots of you feeding the birds.

  14. dianaed2013 says:

    Fantastic image – here we just have rain and rain

  15. We are bracing for that arctic air which is supposed to hit tomorrow. Right now it is snowing. I have just filled up the bird feeders, we’ll see if they need refilling tomorrow. I wonder if I could hand feed in my back garden given all the feeders around.

    • I got a chill seeing what the weather was going to be in Chicago on Sunday. Yipes, you are in for really cold weather. We have gotten to -20 before but that is really, really rare. I have 12 feeding stations in my yard, and the chickadees will always come to the hand. Give it a try. Doves are really easy to hand feed too, but I have to get down to the ground for them. You mentioned in the other post, Judy thought it unsanitary, but I was thinking that cleaning the feeders probably is worse.

  16. acuriousgal says:

    Yay, Donna!! You know how much I love your posts on birds!!! I’m doing this, well not me, my hubby. As much as I love looking at birds, I might freak out if they landed in my hands. Such great pics and info, as always!!!

    • The small birds are so light, you don’t even notice. On occasion, like yesterday, they were really gripping my fingers with the sharp nails, I had to put the gloves back on. My hands were cold, so I guess I just felt it more, plus they sat in my hand much longer than usual. Today I went on a day with a temperature of 35° and fewer birds came and they came quickly, took the food and took off.

  17. bittster says:

    Your photos seem exceptional in this post! I could almost wish for the freeze to continue if this is what it brings in, but I’ll be content with just a couple more duck pictures. Looking forward to them!

    • Thank you Frank. During the cold months of the year, I get a lot of viewership on GWGT because of the snowy and icy Niagara. I think people want to see it in winter but not brave the cold to come in person. 😀 I hardly see visitors when I am there. Also, the birds are popular. Cardinals in snow are searched hundreds of times a week, even in July.

  18. Your photos are amazing as always. I really appreciate your information on how to successfully interact with the birds, I find it really useful. Based on quite a few folks like yourself I replanted the yard and garden about 4 years ago so that it would serves as a habitat that could support birds and our native wildlife (not the bears or cougars) so they could get through winters like this and it seems to be working. I have added feeders for the Anna’s hummingbirds.

    • That is wonderful you re-did your garden for wildlife. I would not mind seeing a bear or cougar from afar. When I lived in PA, I saw both up and close. Both experiences were frightening to say the least. I was on a very fast horse which saved me in the case of the cougar. Luck saved me on the bear. I flushed a baby bear from its hiding place in the thickets. Mom was nowhere to be seen luckily.

  19. I appreciate your stunning photographs even more knowing you braved the bitter cold to get them. My old bones are not able to tolerate this extreme winter. I MUST try hand feeding the birds, however. Exceptional post! P. x

    • I hope you try hand-feeding. I realize it is not advisable to tame wildlife to people, but the birds came to me before I ever tried to feed them. So I did not feel like I was doing something wrong.

      • Somehow it doesn’t seem wrong to hand feed birds — unlike deer which are physically effected when regularly fed.

        Thank you for your comment on my blog. I greatly appreciate your advice and feel you are more than qualified to give it. The instructor of my college class instilled the importance of using RAW, to the extent I would feel guilty not using it. You made me feel comfortable to strive for the best picture in whatever appropriate format, and most important, you have taken the guilt away.

        Thanks also for your positive comments about my current pictures and about my book! P. x

        • Thank you Pam. Many famous wildlife photographers shoot JPEG for the reasons I left in the comment, knowing their skills in Photoshop and Lightroom can make minor enhancements. They can also make major adjustments, but to remain true to what they actually witnessed, will not enhance an image in this way. What you might try for better images directly from the camera, may be filters on the lens. A polarizing filter will tame daylight glare for instance and brighten colors. Any instructor pushing RAW would most likely be shooting big landscapes. There is better control over light and shadows that are lost in a JPEG image. The landscape shots have such a dynamic range where even pro cameras can not cover all of the lighting information generally. It is in the file and that is what RAW draws out. See why shooting a backyard bird RAW is not necessary? There is not much more to be pulled out of such an image.

          No need to feel guilty on shooting in JPEG. Some of the best in business ONLY shoot JPEG.

  20. Another very nice post and photos. Blessings, Natalie 🙂

  21. franzisofie says:

    I’m totally in love with these photos! The photo of the duck is really cool and the bird on the last photo looks so fluffy! The picture of the river (I suppose) is amazing!

  22. You are a good person for venturing out to feed the wild birds and you can tell that the have really developed a trust in you. Your photography of them is esquisit and I admire how you can go out there in the frigid cold out of your love for wildlife and photography. We were at 16 F and are having a heat wave in the 40’s today but tomorrow it is dropping to 0 F record cold. Keep warm Donna!

    • Thank you Lee. I was there today too. In fact I just got back. I was there talking with a wildlife photographer and hand feeding birds for about an hour. The whole time I am talking and not even standing still, birds kept coming, and it was not even very cold out. Just when I think I have them figured out, they do something that surprises me. That is not why I was there, but I enjoyed taking to another photographer.

  23. Pat says:

    Wonderful photos of the winter birds. I also feel as though I owe the little critters that hang around here and let me photograph them.

  24. I even saw a Titmouse during the really cold weather which is unusual. You make so many good points Donna and one reason I have the suet out for all the birds. Love all the great shots they favored you with…

    • Home gardeners do their share at providing for wild birds in winter. Wild Birds Unlimited does a great business from them. In my post I was feeding the birds in the woods at the Falls and unless they venture out to find local home feeders, they must live on what they find in the forests. Quite a few bird enthusiasts have been coming to feed them the last few years since I have set up four feeding stations for my photographs. Many have been hand feeding them too, like I have been doing for years. Hand Feeding Wild Birds When the weather is coldest, a greater variety of birds visit feeders. How Do Birds Weather an Ice Storm
      Thank you for commenting and adding your experience as a home gardener.

  25. connie661 says:

    I think I have to replenish the bird feeder. I especially like the first photo of the duck. So cool! (no pun intended).

  26. meghan80 says:

    Beautiful! Love all the bird pictures.

  27. Sonja says:

    That mallard shot is just the best–the others are pretty awesome as well. I’ll bet those birds have their own name for you and it has something to do with bountiful. Great post as always. I don’t think I’ll have much luck hand-feeding when bad weather here is the 50s, but I shall try anyway.

  28. A.M.B. says:

    Stunning photos! The birds have been very active at my feeders during this deep freeze. You’re lucky that you tolerate the cold so well. I loved winter when I was a kid, but I’m having a harder time dealing with being cold as an adult.

  29. Birds rarely visit our garden because it’s a high cat-density neighbourhood. For the most part this is ok (though it would be nice to see them) because there’s wild land nearby where there are lots of berries and creatures to eat. We hardly ever have snow (I wish we did). But as for your bird photos – they are all impressive and interesting (as they always are!) but the mallard one at the top is mega.

  30. Annette says:

    Super post! There’s such beauty in winter I agree and am thrilled to be able to share your bird encounters. Winters are very mild where I live and I’m happy about that. I lived in the Alps before and there is deep winter for many months, so there was havoc at the feeder. Stay warm 🙂

  31. Ree says:

    Donna, Your post made my day! You won’t believe this: Just yesterday, I saw some birds (Junco, Cardinal, etc) come out from their hiding under my deck and so I quickly filled a bird feeder by the door. Although I have seen them on this tree by my window last winter, which was mild, I didn’t realize they would be out in such freezing temps — live in a suburb near Chicago. Therefore, I was curious and just googled to read how birds survive in harsh winters. To cut a long story short, I found your article. Love it. You have taken such spectacular pictures. And it’s so nice to read about your thoughtfulness for these feathered friends.

    Like you, I love taking pics of these beautiful birds, but they fly away every time I open the door to take a picture. So I have been taking photos from the window (my pics are not as good as yours but would love to share them with you: http://rcree.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/feathered-friends/).

    By the way, from this article, I learned that the bird I saw yesterday was a Junco. I’ll come back again to your blog to learn more about birds.Thanks!

    • Thank you for visiting GWGT, Ree. I will certainly visit your blog as I visit all that comment here. All January I photograph birds each year and have many posts on creating a backyard photo studio. Most of those photos are taken from inside through a window. My current post, https://gardenwalkgardentalk.com/2014/01/27/do-birds-shiver-when-it-is-cold/ I did from a search question on my blog. In it I have both photos from inside and outside in the backyard. It is much better to photograph them outside, but in my backyard studio series posts, you can see how I can get better photos from inside. I thank you for coming and hope you see some of the posts I mentioned.

      • Ree says:

        Thanks Donna. I have checked out your other post on Photo tips. Wow, those Cardinal pics were stunning. You have got great suggestions–will definitely try some of those tips this winter.

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