birdnote q&a: your questions answered on what’s ‘home’ to a bird, and how they stay warm

Great Blue Heron with nestlings © Tom GreyIN 2002, THEN-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of Seattle Audubon Chris Peterson heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she said to herself. In 2005 her thought became BirdNote, a two-minute, seven-day-a-week public-radio “interstitial” (as short programs are called) that—like all birds of a different feather always do—caught my ear.  More recently, a lot of you commented on one of my bird stories by asking 150-plus questions, and I had an “aha” of my own: I’d ask BirdNote if they’d collaborate on answering them, in words and audio clips. The first in our series tackles the subject: How do birds make themselves at home—even in winter?

Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote team (who describes her job there as “writes/edits/finds photos/posts to the website/sits in on recordings”—sort of like my job at A Way to Garden) was kind and patient enough to be our teacher. Remember, parts of each answer are in the 2-minute clips you can stream (all in the green links–or you can read the transcripts of each episode at those links if you prefer). Here we go:

nest, versus roost

Q. The topic of where birds prefer to live, and especially the role of the nest in their lifestyles, seemed to provoke my readers’ curiosity—and also probably some misconceptions. What’s “home” to a bird?

A. The great number of migratory species are all away from their nests–some as far as a different continent–during the nonbreeding season. Even among the residents, the majority of birds do not use their nest as a home but only a place to raise their young.

Exceptions would be some hole-nesters that roost in their cavities throughout the year, but they are a real minority. Those might be chickadees or their cousins, the titmice, or perhaps nuthatches or small woodpeckers.

There is a distinction between nesting and roosting. What most birds do at night is roost: they find a safe place to sleep, and enter it secretively so that predators don’t suspect. Individuals of some species roost alone, others do so in groups. (Listen to the difference in this BirdNote episode.)

Many birds nest in habitats different from where they spend the rest of the year…for instance:

  • Great Blue Herons nest in trees! (The audio scoop on that.) (Heron photo at top of page, copyright Tom Grey.)
  • Willets, a type of shorebird, breed in prairie wetlands, but spend the winter along Pacific coastal shorelines from Washington State south all the way through Central America. (Stream the short story.)
  • And American Crows, territorial during nesting season, gather in huge roosts for the night, during the winter. (Listen.)

baby, it’s cold outside

Q. Speaking of the comforts of home…how do birds stay warm in winter’s cold?

A. Their keys to success are varied, some built-in and others tactical:

  • Many birds roost together. (The podcast on keeping cozy that way.)
  • Down helps. Even a single small bird such as a wren or sparrow may have 7,000 to 10,000 feathers. (Hear how feathers insulate.)
  • Birds’ feet have a special adaptation called Rete mirabile, Latin for “wonderful net.” (Because of it, feet don’t freeze.)

Talk about cold-proofing: These chickadees wedge themselves into tiny cavities and drop their body temperature 18 degrees!

Ptarmigans burrow into powder snow. Anna’s hummingbirds may spend the winter as far north as British Columbia. When it’s especially cold, they go into a state of torpor, conserving body heat and energy.

next week’s questions, and how to get birdnote

birdnote logoNEXT WEEK’S ANSWERS from among the most popular of 150-plus questions you asked me recently will be about birds on the move—the miracles of hummingbird migration, and when birds fly en masse, and why.

If you have other bird questions, you may find them in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station why they don’t have it, too.

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Tilly says:

    Thanks for introducing BirdNote. You never cease to amaze me with your shared information. Happy travels with your new book.

  2. Lorie says:

    That was really fun!!! So many chickadees here and so many “spots” in the trees. Thanks for always sharing new found info with us. Many people are actually fearful of using tube birdfeeders thinking the birds’ feet will freeze on the perches.
    Good luck with your new book….and your voice.

  3. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    Strolling along county waterways, we see dramatic Great Blue Herons almost weekly year ’round. In cold weather, it’s more often. We’ve seen their huge footprints on the local fish hatchery sidewalks after a light snow. And us with no camera! Love the top photo and look forward to your new “series” on birds. A well-rounded gardener will know the local birds by their catalog of sounds.

  4. Chris says:

    I have listened to Bird Note for years. It is a great reminder of that part of nature. My husband and I took a carving class 2 years ago and each carved a Least Tern. Rick has gone on to carve 5 song birds and is working on a duck right now. The teachers we have are Byrn and Joanne Watson and these two are well known artists in the carving world. They also work hard to promote the Federal Junior Duck Stamp Program. It connects children K-12th grade with nature though science and art. You can check it out at http://www.fws.gov/juniorduck. There is a display of last years entries at the Centralia College in Washington Hall, Centralia, WA now with info to enter by March 15th for this year.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Chris — glad to meet another BirdNote lover, and how impressive about the carving! Great info, and inspiration.

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