Birds in winter: Surviving and thriving in the wild

Withstanding dwindling daylight, frigid temperatures, and blustery snowstorms is no easy task, especially for backyard birds. While some migrate south to seek better light conditions and resources, other birds are able to face the winter with admirable tenacity, and we’re grateful for it! Winter birds bring joy, color, and hints of spring to our backyards. While we wait for spring migration, let’s learn all about winter birding and what it takes for our feathered friends to survive in cold, harsh environments.

house finch

Pictured: Male House Finch

Are birds still around in the winter?

Yes! Not all birds fly south for the winter. Why do some birds migrate and others don’t? It all comes down to available resources and a bird’s specific diet. Birds whose diets are mostly made up of nectar, fruits, or flying insects will find their food sources beginning to diminish as the weather becomes colder. These birds follow the weather pattern not because they would be unable to survive in the cold, but because it would take too much energy to forage for their food in that location.

What kind of birds stay in the winter?

Seed eating birds, and birds who eat insects on the ground or in trees, are usually the types of birds who can tough it out during the snowy season. Here is a list of the most common backyard birds that stay throughout the wintertime:

Did you know? Not all hummingbirds migrate! Most hummingbirds in the United States and Canada will travel south in search of nectar-rich flowers, insects, and longer daylight hours. But one type of hummingbird has begun to stick it out through the Pacific Northwest winters. The Anna’s Hummingbird has been known to stay year-round in regions ranging from Seattle, Washington to Vancouver, BC. How do hummingbirds survive the winter in these chilly locations? Winters here are mild, with temperatures around 45°F (7°C) during the day and only about 5 in/12 cm of snowfall per year. Many winter-blooming flowers, along with plenty of generous hummingbird feeder hosts, are able to provide the nectar hummingbirds need to generate the energy to stay warm in the colder weather and occasional snowfall.

What do birds do during winter?

For the birds who tough it out through the winter, the majority of their time is spent just trying to keep warm. There are several methods birds use to stay warm, depending on their species. Generally, shivering, fluffing their feathers, roosting, and cuddling are how birds keep warm in freezing weather.

Staying warm uses a substantial amount of a bird’s energy. When they must leave the comfort and safety of their winter shelters, it’s usually to find food. Birds spend much of the winter foraging for food under the snow, in vegetation, and in winter bird feeders. And when freezing temperatures hit, they need to seek out available fresh water sources that haven’t been frozen over.

cardinal in snow

Pictured: Male Northern Cardinal

Why is winter hard for birds?

In the wintertime, nights are long and dark, days are short and cold, and snowstorms threaten to limit the amount of time birds can spend hunting for food. In some locations, nights can be as long as 18 hours! With such little daytime to refuel, wild birds are constantly on the lookout for quick, high-energy food sources. That’s why feeding birds in the winter is extremely helpful for their survival. Learn more about how you can help winter birds survive and thrive in our winter bird feeding guide.

Water is essential to winter birds’ survival. All birds drink water, and with frigid temperatures freezing over freshwater ponds and lakes, birds may be forced to travel long distances for water, or they may even resort to eating snow (if there is any). Wild birds still bathe regularly, even in the cold winter months. It’s important for them to keep their feathers clean and in good condition to make it through the snowy season.

Even while they’re sheltering, birds are expending energy to keep warm by fluffing their feathers and shivering. A wild bird’s winter is spent in a constant cycle of finding and using energy just to stay warm. This, on top of limited daylight, scarce resources, and inclement weather, makes winter a tough season for birds to endure.

Do birds use bird feeders in the winter?

While birds are not entirely reliant on feeders to sustain them, bird feeders are extremely beneficial to wild birds throughout the winter as a supplement to their diet and a quick source of energy. Bird feeders keep seeds, nuts, and suet accessible to birds at all times, even during harsh weather conditions. Hanging a bird feeder baffle can help partially protect the contents of your feeder, keeping them drier and fresher.

cardinal at bird feeder

Pictured: Male Northern Cardinal on Galvanized Weathered Hopper Feeder (Model# WWGF2-DECO)

What do birds eat in the winter?

Tall piles of snow and thick sheets of ice can make finding food in the wintertime challenging for birds. Most backyard birds are omnivores, with diets consisting of both plant-based and animal-based foods. Typically, birds will eat seeds from spent flowers, insects found under tree bark or in the ground, fallen nuts, or suet from feeders or scavenged carcasses. In the winter, you can use bird feeders to provide the birds with a variety of bird seed, nuts, suet or fresh and dried fruits.

blue jay at suet feeder

Pictured: Blue Jay on Tail-prop Suet Feeder (Model# CWF1)

Where do birds go when it snows?

Contrary to what you might believe, birds don’t use nests in the winter. Bird’s nests are only built and used to nest and raise their young in the spring and early summer. So where do birds go when it’s freezing cold or a blizzard hits? Some birds can fly in snowy conditions, but most will shelter in place in dense vegetation, on the downwind side of trees, or inside a birdhouse or roost box.


Best winter bird feeders:




Best winter nest boxes:


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