A male Anna’s hummingbird struggling to survive feeds at a hummingbird feeder at the Dells in Prescott on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, during the big snowstorm. (Walt Anderson/Courtesy)

The weather this past week has been simply amazing. To go from virtually no precipitation for months and months to being buried by more than 20 inches of snow — depending where you live — has been both wonderful and dreadful.

We’ve needed an abundance of moisture for a long time, and receiving all of this snow will certainly be a blessing (in the long-run) for our forests, creeks and lakes. However, in the short-term, a weather event like we just experienced can exact a deadly toll on our feathered friends.

The key to survival for wild birds is food availability. To maintain their metabolism and their high body temperature — between 100 and 104 degrees — birds need to consume enough food every day to avoid starvation and freezing to death. That’s a grim thought, but it’s a daily reality for wild creatures that live outdoors in all of the different weather conditions Mother Nature throws at them.

This past Christmas, one of my customers gave me the book, “What It’s Like To Be A Bird” by David Allen Sibley. In many of his essays, he shares insights on the challenges associated with survival. Here are some interesting tidbits from his new book:

  • Every night birds lose 10% of their body weight.

  • You would have to eat 25 large pizzas every day if you ate like a bird.

  • Birds are able to sense barometric pressure. When the pressure drops, indicating an approaching storm, they react by eating more.

  • Many small songbirds are capable of entering into a state of “torpor,” a temporary hibernation to save energy on cold nights — Anna’s hummingbirds do this regularly.

  • A bird can lose about 30% of its body weight before suffering serious effects.

  • The fluffy down in the feathers found close to the body is the most efficient insulation material known — no other material, natural or synthetic, matches down’s insulating properties.

As the winter storm raged earlier this week, I received countless emails and pictures from customers showing what they were doing to help the wild birds in their yard. I can’t even begin to imagine how challenging it would be for a bird — weighing mere grams — to survive such brutal conditions.

The depth of the snow made foraging for food particularly challenging for birds that are considered “ground-feeders.” This includes mourning doves, Gambel’s quail, towhees, sparrows and juncos. Ground-feeding birds are typically seed-eaters, as seeds from most seed-producing plants typically end up down on the ground.

In contrast, berry eaters —such as western bluebirds, American robins, cedar waxwings, hermit thrushes and phainopepla — probably fared a little better than seed eaters. There are many native berry-producing trees and shrubs in the Arizona Central Highlands, such as manzanita, silk tassel, juniper and hackberry. When trees and shrubs are laden with snow, berry-eating birds are still able to access their preferred food.

Insect-eating varieties of birds that winter over include ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, bushtits and woodpeckers. These types of birds use foraging techniques referred to as “foliage gleaning” and “bark gleaning.” These birds forage on the underside of leaves for their preferred food. Woodpeckers use their chisel-like beak to exfoliate bark from tree trunks in order to access insects.

There are several bird species that store food. This list includes some woodpecker species, jays, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. I suspect winter survival is perhaps somewhat easier for these species as they have cached food in advance of winter storms like we experienced this week.

I am grateful for the precipitation we received this past week, and I am hopeful that the majority of our wild feathered friends found a way to survive this week’s wild weather.

Until next week, happy birding!

Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona — Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.