As we get closer and closer to winter solstice, the days continue to get shorter as the nights get longer. While this change in day length does not affect us directly, it has a big impact on wild birds. They have less time during the day to forage for food, and they have to go a much longer period of time without eating at night, while enduring much colder temperatures.
At summer solstice, the sun rises in the Prescott area at approximately 5:17 a.m. and sets around 7:45 p.m., providing over 14 hours of sunlight. Our weather in June is warm, and there is an abundance of natural food sources available to wild birds, such as insects and flowering plants.
Finding sufficient food in June is not an issue for wild birds. Unless it is unusually hot and dry, wild birds are typically not stressed during the summer months. They can readily find enough food each day to meet their metabolic needs.
In contrast, at winter solstice, the sun rises in the Prescott area at approximately 7:32 a.m. and sets around 5:23 p.m., providing less than 10 hours of sunlight. During this time of year, there are few insects to be found, and there are no native plants in bloom. The main sources of natural food available to wild birds in winter are seeds and berries.
Compounding this situation, there are four and a half hours less daylight in winter for the birds to scurry around and find food. Additionally, instead of having to go only about 10 hours without food from dusk to daylight, they now have to go over 14 hours between feedings. Needless to say, wintertime can be stressful for wild birds as they search for food.
When we are cold during the winter months, we have warm comfortable homes to sleep in, and we have layers of clothes we can put on to keep us warm when we go outside. Life isn’t quite that easy for wild birds. When they have to endure long, cold winter nights, the key to their survival is a full belly and sufficient fat reserves to maintain their warm-blooded metabolism and their body temperature of approximately 105 degrees.
The key to survival for wild birds in winter is sufficient food. It is that simple. This is the reason many birds migrate. It is not that they can’t withstand cold temperatures. It is because their preferred food source, which helps them maintain their metabolism, is not available to them in winter.
The primary diet for such bird species as orioles, tanagers, warblers, vireos and hummingbirds is insects. In December, there aren’t a lot of insects due to our freezing temperatures. This is why these birds migrate — they go where they can find sufficient food to sustain them during the winter months.
Most of our winter birds are seed eaters, and seed is relatively easy to find if we’ve had a good monsoon season. This was not the case last year. Our winter birds had it rough due to the lack of natural food sources.
This year, however, we had a good monsoon season. It appears that there will be a lot of natural seeds available, just as long as we don’t have heavy snowfall that buries all of the seed, making it inaccessible to wild birds.
As winter weather approaches, consider making a variety of food sources available to the wild birds in your yard. These include nutritious seeds blends, suet, seed and nut cakes and cylinders, and a source of water. You might even consider using a bird bath heater to keep the water accessible when we experience freezing temperatures.
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn in Prescott, Arizona. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.