Birds In Winter

A Blue Jay looks out into a Minnesota snowstorm…

Here in Minneapolis, there aren’t many colorful birds, but we have something else that’s special: a harsh, snowy winter. I photograph birds dealing with winter adversity – by staying calm and conserving energy, avoiding the wind, and finding enough food to sustain their high metabolisms – and also by facing right into the storm when necessary.

Minnesota birds know how to find enough to eat – except on days when the weather gets really bad. In sub-zero cold they have to eat more often and move around less; but the real threat is snowstorms that blanket their food sources, sometimes under impenetrable ice. On those days, birds can die.

But I don’t see fear in the eye of his Cardinal, just determination; he’s been through it all before and knows what he has to do.

Bird species vary in their food requirements, and in how long they can go without food if necessary. Larger birds can last days, but for the tiny ones the margin is thin and winter mortality is higher. In a particularly bad year, half of the birds may not survive, and human-supplied food supplements can make a critical difference.

A bad storm can cover up the natural food sources that a particular bird depends on, pushing it out of its comfort zone. Flickers usually stay high in the trees and eat only on the ground, but this one sat on a low branch for a while, waiting out the heavy wet snow coming down.

In very early spring, a snowstorm can hit just as birds are getting ready for the breeding season and need to put on weight – so they visit feeders more frequently. The big flakes are photogenic, and the sun is higher, sometimes even peeking through the clouds as the snow is still swirling around.

Birds may seem stoic, but they feel the stress of uncertainty in harsh conditions. Sometimes, after eating a feeder, a bird may move to a nearby branch, fluff its insulating feathers and just rest for while. This Northern Junco is looking around, calmly… maybe reflecting on what sort of a winter it’s turning out to be…. and on what the sky is saying….

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