Even though it's winter, birds need water

January 03. 2014 8:46PM

The arrival of the New Year is a time for a bit of slate cleaning - a time to mind-scrub our deficiencies - a time to reach out and catch the energy to squeeze life a bit harder. Time is a gift. How we use it becomes our bequest.

As the years crowd me I am amazed, not at what I know, but at what I don't know. The search for knowledge is a constant for me, a perpetual crusade, if you will. Whenever someone asks me to spend some of my days on a new endeavor, I ask myself: "Will I be able to contribute to the cause and can I profit from doing so?" Perhaps profit is not the best choice of a word to use as, for many, profit simply signifies money. What I'm really speaking about, though, is the reward of gaining new ideas, learning new techniques, acquiring personal development, in short fresh knowledge.

Before I get completely carried away into the ethereal as I prepare for this new year, let us take up two basic bird questions: First, Do birds need water for bathing in winter?

In my research, I turned to a book entitled: "A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding," published by Knopf. The author, John V. Dennis, wrote: "If there is any time of the year when water is at a premium for bathing, it is winter. Birds are eager for water for drinking purposes in winter, and if anything, they need to bathe more often in cold weather. The reason is not hard to discover. Birds bathe to keep warm!

"It is especially important that their feathers be kept clean and well groomed during the colder months. A feather contains interlocking webs known as barbules. When in place these shut out the cold and thereby provide insulation from the vigors of the weather. Using their bills, as much as we would use a comb, the bird carefully grooms its feathers and anoints them with oil from a special gland at the base of its tail. The first essential requirement in this routine is that the feathers be clean. This is why bathing is so important in winter and that even with the mercury hovering slightly above zero, birds sometimes insist upon bathing.

"Keeping bird baths open and in use all winter is easy with an electrical appliance called an immersion water heater. This is a heating element that is placed in the bath and that can be attached to an electrical outlet by means of an extension cord. In very cold weather an immersion water heater is not likely to supply enough heat to keep the entire bath open. Therefore, there may be occasions when you will need to break the ice and pour in hot water. The warmer water will be appreciated by birds for both drinking and bathing."

Secondly: Is it harmful to stop feeding birds in winter once a feeding program has begun? Generally speaking, if one knows that they will have to stop feeding birds during the winter months for some reason, it would be better not to start. However, as Roger Tory Peterson said when asked a similar question: "Birds are survivors."

It should be noted, however, that the birds who do stay with us in winter face a special problem. They must have a regular food source, either natural or provided, in order to keep warm. If you are the only person within a large radius who feeds birds, then it would probably do the birds a kindness to stop feeding immediately. This puts the birds on notice to find an alternate source of food.

In southern New Hampshire, where many folks put out feed for birds, I'm sure the birds would quickly go to another feeding area nearby. Birds can and do travel quite long distances seeking a plentiful supply of food.

Many of the birds that visit feeders during winter (including our northern White Mountains) are not local residents but are birds that have drifted southward from their nesting territories in Canada. For example, very few evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, red crossbills, pine siskins, redpolls, and northern juncos nest in New Hampshire.

Even our summer blue jays drift southward in late fall and their place is taken by the jays who have summered to the north. On this point, Edward Howe Forbush in his "Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States" commented: "The blue jay is regarded as a resident bird, wintering where it breeds; nevertheless it migrates more or less. Its migrations are of two kinds: (1) regular southward movements in autumn or winter from the more northern parts of its range and returns in spring to its breeding places; (2) irregular movements in autumn or winter from those parts of its range where food is scarce to those where it is abundant.

Migrations of the first class probably take place every autumn from the extreme northern parts of the range and extend to the middle states at least. Those of the second class usually occur from some region where beechnuts, chestnuts or acorns are not plentiful to another region... ."

Happy New Year!


Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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