Winter has unfurled in most of the country. Nippy nights and frosty days bring the songbirds to the feeding stations.We have our tray and tube feeders cleaned, filled and ready-to-go.While we enjoy making our feathered visitors coming back to our cafes loaded with delights and Chubby Mealworms — we need to keep one often forgotten element in mind. In fact, this critical resource fits into a riddle.
What falls from the sky in plentiful supply and waits at our feet quite tall? What waits in place, as it makes limbs fall, but can’t be used at all?
Hmmm….just what is this substance?
It is water!
When temperatures drop below freezing, they make water unavailable to the birds, and birds need liquid water for drinking and bathing. Songbirds bathe all year, even in the cold winter. Birds also use dust and dirt to clean the extra oils from their feathers. For those birdwatchers with chickens, they are familiar with this dust bathing process!
But… deep snow or frozen temperatures prevents wild birds from accessing both dirt and open water.
"Forget it. I'm going to take a shower."
The dearth of available liquid resources is compounded, since frozen water sources are not compensated by the moisture in foodstuffs. In other times of the year the fruits that many songbirds enjoy are full of additional liquid, but in the drying air of cold temperatures the fruits are desiccated with little remaining water content (think grapes versus raisins). Most winter food supplies lack moisture content.
Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology informs us that “a dependable supply of fresh, clean water is attractive to most birds. In fact, a birdbath will even bring to your yard birds that don’t eat seeds and wouldn’t visit your feeders. Providing water for birds can also improve the quality of your backyard bird habitat and should provide you with a fantastic opportunity to observe bird behavior” (Bird Notes, Number 9).
All birds’ survival is dependent on the health and quality of their plumage. We are familiar with the devastation of oil spills on avian wildlife. The oil coats the birds’ feathers, destroying the insulating properties of their plumage. Feathers are warmer than fur and birds have two layers of feather types. The down is not water proof – it is the fluffy and wispy feathers that lie close to their bodies. This down has a high fluff factor, allowing for tremendously effectively insulating properties (70 degree or more depending on species)! The outer “hard” feathers provide the waterproofing and wind breaking properties, and they keep the down “under wraps.”
Birds preen their feathers to maintain these lifesaving properties. Preening involves running the beak through the feather, starting at the base and zipping the beak up the shaft to the fluffy end, in order to connect the feather barbs (which are akin to velcro). Birds also inspect their feathers for insects and to release the papery coating that falls off of new feathers. There is an oil gland at the base of their tail – located on their back at the saddle area. They take this oil onto their beaks and apply it to waterproof their feathers. Birds have a built-in cosmetic applicator!
Birds need to bathe in dust and water to keep their feathers functioning properly. While this is a critical need throughout the year – birds need to keep their feathers in tiptop shape to ensure they stay warm in harsh winter conditions.Those Chubby Mealworm fans with chickens know just how fluffy and fine their fowl look after a good dust bath.
Bathing not only maintains feather health, it also assists with parasite removal. Skin and feather parasites, such as mites, severely stress and weaken birds. In fact, birds can die from these infestations (and this is especially true for fledglings or young birds).
What You Can Do
Providing open water sources is easier than you might think. If you keep a fishpond, the open water will naturally provide drinking sources.
In areas with milder winter nights, refill your birdbaths with warm water each morning. Even a trick as easy as floating a rubber ball in the bowl can provide enough surface disturbance to keep water open. If you live in a region with frosty weather, simply adding a fountain feature or an internal water pump will keep the birdbath from freezing.
For the majority of us, winter brings sustained temperatures that are below freezing. Invest in a heated birdbath or place a specially designed birdbath heater/de-icer into the basin. Always plug the heating devices into a properly mounted ground fault interrupter to avoid risk of electric shock.
Note: Never use any chemicals, cooking oils or glycerin in the water. Glycerin and non-toxic oils are deadly to birds. They will coat he birds’ feathers, just as the petroleum from an oil spill, and this will kill the birds. Never add anything to your birdbaths accept pure, clean water. Even in winter, birdbaths will still need regular scrubbing and cleaning to prevent disease risks.
We love to hear from you. Drop us a note in the comment section – and don’t forget to put some Chubby Mealworms in your winter feeders. Birds LOVE their mealworms!