A little Eastern Bluebird reflecting on winter.

When the winter feels like it will never end and even watching your birdfeeders doesn’t inspire you as much, you can liven thing up and increase your birdwatching opportunities by adding a water source – yes, even in the winter.  Every January we will get a thaw and the birds celebrate by finding any puddles on the deck or drippings off the roof and splash with abandon.  We do have two small bird baths in the yard. One hangs from a tree branch and normally just holds snow.  The other has an electrical hook-up, so it can hold water, even on freezing days and nights.

You might have wondered how birds manage to survive for the five months of winter in northern regions when most water is frozen and inaccessible not only for baths, but for drinking? Besides the drips from the roof and puddles, there may be a nearby river or stream that remains open in patches.  But birds rarely approach open water in deep areas where the water is moving fast.  They will only approach the very shallow edges where there are rocks or sticks to stand on.

purple finch at bird bath

Purple Finch enjoying a water break during a snowstorm.

Even in the winter months it is critical that bird feathers be kept in prime condition; their very survival depends on it.  You have probably seen a bird preening its feathers.  It will reach down or back and grab a feather in its beak and pull outward.  Sometimes this is done so quickly you can’t actually see the motion.  If it find any bits of dirt or any parasitic insects (mites, lice, fleas) it will gobble them up. Then it will fluff out and ruffle all of its feathers at once and let them settle back into place.  The bird will use its beak to spread oil from a glad near the base of its tail over all the feathers.  The oil keeps the main rachis (shaft) of the feathers pliable, and waterproofs them.

It is believed that bathing in water aids in the process of spreading the oil over the body. It may appear as though the bird is soaking wet, when in fact it is only dampening the feathers. Soaked body feathers would hinder a bird’s ability to fly and in cold temperatures quickly lead to hypothermia.  Looking for answers and research about birds and how they bathe in the winter, turned up precious little. I wondered whether they might bathe in snow. This has not been studied, but there was anecdotal evidence that they do, including videos on the web, showing small birds in one and a raven in another.

blue jay at bird bath

All shades of blue.

I personally believe birds must use snow in this way, because in a normal winter there just isn’t that much open water available.  Minute bits of snow probably melt on contact with their body to help in the dissemination of the oils over the feathers.  And they must also occasionally eat bits of snow too, since there are very few insects or fruit to provide them with moisture. Birds don’t have sweat glands, but they still lose moisture through respiration and in their bodily wastes.

Look for heated bird baths or heating units for ponds at Hardware stores or where you buy your birdseed.

You can find more information and suggestions on providing birds with water in winter here.