~ Guest Blogger Fatbirder ~
How do birds cope with extreme cold and extreme heat?
While some bird species have adapted to survive in cold environments, most birds are endothermic, which means they regulate their body temperature internally just like humans. Of course, like us, their body temperature needs to remain within a certain range to function correctly, and when the temperature drops too low, birds may struggle to maintain their body temperature.
Of course some birds migrate to warmer areas during the winter months. This is not because they cannot cope with cold but more about food sources… insectivorous birds will have nothing to eat when freezing weather kills off many insects and prevents others from flying. A few species can adapt, such as Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps that switch from an insect diet in summer to fruit during Autumn. The has led some individuals to chance the cold weather and stay during winter because they will get the pick of nesting territories in Spring before their fellows arrive back.
Birds have various ways of coping with cold weather, including behavioural, physiological, and anatomical adaptations. They have a variety of adaptations such as thick feathers, shivering to generate heat, and reducing their metabolic rate to conserve energy. Some of these strategies include:
Birds have a specialised layer of feathers that acts as insulation and helps to trap heat close to the body, thereby keeping the bird warm.
Like humans, birds can shiver to generate heat, which helps to maintain their body temperature.
Many birds will roost in sheltered areas such as trees, shrubs, or birdhouses to protect themselves from the cold winds. Doing so in large congregations also helps as does…
Some bird species, such as penguins, huddle together in groups to conserve warmth. Within a large flock birds take their turn on exposed sides then move into the middle to share others’ body heat.
Birds can puff up their feathers to create air pockets that help to trap warm air close to their bodies.
Adjusting metabolic rate:
Some birds can lower their metabolic rate to conserve energy and maintain body heat during cold weather.
Many birds adapt to the cold by changing their diets to include more high-fat foods.
Some bird species migrate to warmer areas during the winter months avoiding the need to adapt.
Overall, birds have evolved a variety of strategies to cope with cold weather, allowing them to survive and thrive in a range of climates.
However, if the cold becomes severe, it can still be harmful to birds, especially if they can’t find sufficient shelter, food, or water. So, it’s essential to provide food and water sources for birds during cold weather to help them survive. Sadly, birds do die from cold, especially when the weather changes suddenly.
On the other side of the coin, birds have a variety of strategies to cope with heat, as they are warm-blooded animals that maintain a stable body temperature despite changes in the environment. Some of the strategies to avoid cold work to avoid heat too. Here are some ways that birds cope with heat:
Like dogs, birds regulate their body temperature through panting. By rapidly breathing in and out, they are able to evaporate moisture from their respiratory system and release heat.
Birds will often seek out shady areas to escape the heat of the sun. This can be in the form of trees, shrubs, but they also use man-made structures such as buildings or bridges.
Many birds take frequent baths, either by splashing around in water or by taking a dip in a body of water. This helps to cool them down by lowering their body temperature and providing moisture to their feathers.
Some birds will fluff up their feathers, which creates an insulating layer of air around their bodies. This helps to regulate their body temperature by reducing heat loss.
Changing their behaviour:
During periods of extreme heat, birds may change their behaviour to conserve energy and avoid overheating. For example, they may become less active during the hottest part of the day, or they may seek out cooler microclimates such as the base of a tree or a shaded area. Birders will know that the heat in the afternoon is a bad time to go birding.
Watching birds walking on ice, or in very warm water provokes the question; can birds feel the cold in their feet. If the ground or the air is cold, a bird’s feet will feel cold too.
However, birds have adapted to deal with cold temperatures in different ways. Some birds, like penguins and certain species of seabirds, have specialised feathers and blood vessels in their feet that help them conserve heat and prevent their feet from freezing in extremely cold environments. Other birds, like ducks and geese, have a special ‘counter current’ heat exchange system in their legs and feet that helps to maintain a constant body temperature even in very cold water. Some draw blood away from their feet so it doesn’t freeze!
Overall, birds have a range of physiological and behavioural adaptations that allow them to cope with cold or heat and maintain a stable body temperature, even in extreme conditions.