When temperatures are hovering around the zero mark, the lives of hot blooded little birds become greatly simplified. Their daily routines become a series of black and white issues rather than a whole string of grey options. For them, the primary need is keeping warm. Finding liquid water and locating life sustaining food become secondary concerns – at least in the short term – when things become harsh.
Over the course of my wanderings over the past few bone-chilling days I’ve noticed quite a few birds making the best of things (or, I guess you could say they were “birding up” to the elements). To greatly simplify my observations, let me say that a little warmth can go a long way. As far as birds go, they don’t ask for much.
The colder the temperature the more likely it is that birds will engage in sunbathing. For them tanning has nothing to do with it. It’s all about microclimate.
I noticed a cluster of Starlings clinging to the top rail of a barn door (see above). The flock selected the east facing side of the structure which was flooded by the full brunt (and warming influence) of the morning sun. Although there was precious little perching space, they clung wherever they could. Many were facing the sun with their heads pointed downward – presumably to warm the top of their little pates. In such a pose they looked to be humbly bowing to a great king, however. I suppose a giant ball of fire which influences earth from over 93 million miles away is worthy of such adoration. Heck, people have paid such homage for centuries!
Further down the road a White-throated Sparrow was taking a different tact. Fluffed out into a nearly perfect ball of feathers, the bird was facing east and sitting on the ground at the edge of a patch of reed stems. His eyes were closed in apparent appreciation of the morning glow (see beginning photo and here). I hesitate to call it a state of bliss, but the little fellow certainly looked, let’s say, “satisfied.” My approach only elicited one open eye as if to say “please don’t bother me – not now.” I didn’t.
Sunning is a tactic which works only when there is no wind. The good thing about bitter cold mornings is that they are often still and cloudless, so sun worship is usually an option. By puffing into a ball, our sparrow was maximizing his ability to trap heat and minimizing his conductive heat loss. If you were to ask him, he would say he was just trying to soak up more heat than he loses to the air. Actually, he would probably just say “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” and request that you get lost.
Windy weather changes this dynamic because the sunbathers loose more heat to the effects of moving air than they take in. At such times it is better to slim down and hold one’s feathers tight. And, of course, get out of the wind.
Starlings, perhaps because they come from a long association with European urban life, will employ another warming trick. As temperatures plunge, they will make more use of chimney heat. This behavior is not exclusive to Starlings but nine times out of ten, when you see a group of birds on a chimney they will be of the Sternus vulgaris ilk. They will cluster around the stack opening like so many bathers at a sauna – opening their lower body feathers to receive the warming draft directly where it counts. They do not appear to talk politics or of the weather (which would be an endlessly repeating mantra of “boy it’s cold, eh?). No they are usually silent when so engaged – deep into their few moments of summer within the winterscape.