Baby, it’s really cold out there…

It wouldn’t be winter in Minnesota without a week or two of sub-zero (in F degrees) weather (-2F this morning and that’s -19 degrees C). And the little birds have been hitting the feeders pretty hard lately, especially the peanuts.

Chickadees never seem to slow down, regardless of the weather. But they were slow to get up this morning and didn’t make an appearance in the backyard until the sun was well up.

Now here’s the problem with being a small bird trying to survive in this winter climate. Heat will be lost from a body surface when the body is warmer than the environment, and in the case of the chickadee, whose body temperature is normally about 107 F, that is a 109 degree difference between its internal core and the air temperature hitting its feathers this morning.

In addition to this huge thermal gradient for heat loss, small birds like Chickadees have a very high ratio of surface area to their heat-producing body volume — thus accelerating the rate of heat loss. [If you’re interested in why this is, we can talk about the mathematical basis of surface to volume ratios in the comments…]

The chickadee looks like a sphere at rest, because that’s the shape that conserves heat the best. Maximal fluffing and tucking exposed parts in is essential in these subzero temperatures.

Chickadees are metabolic marvels, being able to harvest enough energy from their foraging efforts all day to last them overnight and part way into the next morning, before they can visit their stash of seeds or a bird feeder. BUT…they are economical with their overnight energy expenditures (because you never know what the next morning’s weather will be like), and they make their fat reserves last by lowering their body temperature as much as 20 degrees F (from daytime highs of 107 F to night-time lows of 86 F).*

Hypothermia makes it possible for Black-capped Chickadees and most other titmice members of the Paridae family to survive winter cold in northern latitudes. Not all birds can or do utilize this strategy. Some species, like Common Redpolls, eat a more fat-rich diet to have a larger overnight energy reserve. Some species, like the Common Bushtits that weigh half as much as a Chickadee, share body heat with each other by roosting together communally, packed tightly side by side on a branch. And some species, like Eastern Bluebirds do a little of both the Chickadee and the Bushtit strategy to make ends meet energetically.

I was intrigued the other day when I found Eastern Bluebirds going in and out of the bluebird boxes at Como Park golf course. I knew they weren’t setting up nest sites at this time of year, so they must be taking refuge from the cold in the boxes. It’s unusual for these Bluebirds to stay this far north in the winter, and I wondered how they were managing it.

Multiple birds in the same box together would be ideal for conserving some body heat on a cold day, in the same way we use the shelters at the bus stop and (used to) stand close to friends and family to retain heat.

Groups of six to eight Eastern Bluebirds in Indiana were observed to roost together in a nest box overnight, forming a circle with their heads toward the center of the box and pointed downward below their bodies so the heat from their exhaled breaths was directed toward the other birds.** It’s possible they might be using this heat conservation strategy during the daytime as well here in Minnesota, when multiple birds enter the same box.

In addition, Eastern Bluebirds forage in small flocks during the winter, using the strategy of more eyes to find food. And when they take a break from foraging intensively, they often huddle tightly together on a branch close to the trunk of a large tree that provides some protection from heat loss from the wind.

Scott Mohn found just such a collection of male Eastern Bluebirds huddling together on a tree limb at Como Park golf course on this cold morning and graciously allowed me to use his image. (Click on the image to see it full screen). Notice these are all male bluebirds, which would not tolerate each other’s presence during the breeding season. But for the purpose of winter survival, they are bosom buddies.

It must be tough to be an Eastern Bluebird that depends on a fruit and insect diet to find enough to sustain itself overnight in Minnesota’s subzero climate. What do they do if they can’t find sufficient food to last them overnight? Bluebirds in Indiana were lethargic and immobile when researchers opened the nest box after a cold night; it’s possible they might also be lowering their body temperatures overnight to conserve energy like the Chickadees do. But there are no published data on this — at least that I can find.

*The data on hypothermia in Chickadees overnight was part of my Ph.D. thesis at Cornell University in 1973.
**The data on communal roosts of Eastern Bluebirds in Indiana was published by Frazier and Nolan in 1959 in Bird Banding.

Bright blue and beautiful

Just as I was about to leave the one of the parks on the Mississippi River that I visited today, I heard bluebirds singing in a nearby tree, so I tried to track them down.  They never let me get close, but the contrast of the males’ bright blue feathers against the rusty brown of old oak leaves was striking enough to make some nice photos.

In fact, his rusty brown breast feathers just matched the color of the oak leaves.

The bright blue really makes this bird stand out, but the rusty brown breast feathers just matched the color of the oak leaves.

male eastern bluebird

Some males are bluer than others, and the females have paler rusty breast feathers and much less blue in their wing and tail feathers.

Some males seem to be much bluer than others, and the females (upper left) have paler rusty breast feathers and much less blue in their wing and tail feathers.

My long-term blog readers may recall from earlier posts that the blue color is structural, rather than the result of a pigment.  Tiny air spaces in the feathers contain particles (like dust) that scatter and reflect short wavelengths of light so that the feathers appear blue to our eyes.  In the wrong light (i.e., indirect), the bright blue feathers just look slate gray.

A poorly lit subject without direct sunlight on his blue back looks a little dull gray.

A poorly lit subject without direct sunlight on his blue back looks a little less blue.

Bluebirds are not very cold tolerant birds, and we may still experience more spring snowstorms and sub-freezing temperatures, so I hope these guys haven’t arrived too early.