What chickadees can teach us about weathering frigid Manitoba winters

Chickadees can teach us humans a few tricks on how to survive and thrive in frigid winter weather. That's according to Katrina Froese, education programs co-ordinator at FortWhyte Alive in Winnipeg. She says the tiny black capped birds offer a variety of adaptive winter survival skills.

Birds use a variety of adaptations to survive and thrive in bone-chilling conditions

A black capped chickadee feeds in winter. (Tony Beck/Always An Adventure)

Chickadees can teach us humans a few tricks on how to survive and thrive in frigid winter weather. 

That's according to Katrina Froese, education programs co-ordinator at FortWhyte Alive in Winnipeg. She says the tiny black capped birds offer a variety of adaptive winter survival skills. 

For example, she says chickadees are non-migratory and stay close to home year-round for a variety of reasons. They like to know where they can find food regularly and like to know their neighbourhood. 

"They're homebodies. They stick around home in the same area year round and don't go very far."

By day, the chickadee packs on about 10 per cent of its weight in fat. Consuming fatty foods helps to keep the fat stores stocked up.

Suet and sunflower seeds

Froese says if you want to fatten up the chickadees to help them fend off the frigid temperatures, stock up your bird feeder with fatty foods like suet and sunflower seeds, but adds that they aren't dependent on feeders for survival. They always have other sources of food. 

She says chickadees also have exceptional insulation.

"A fluffy coat of chickadee feathers weighs about 10 per cent of its entire body weight which would be the equivalent to a 200-pound man wearing a coat that weighs 20 pounds."

A chickadee feeds from a bird feeder at FortWhyte Alive on Friday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Another way chickadees maintain an optimum body temperature in winter is by going into regulated hypothermia. The bird's body temperature drops by about eight degrees in frigid weather to help the bird conserve energy through the night. 

"They're very smart," she says. 

Froese says chickadees also know how to work together to beat the cold by gathering in larger groups. 

"Those extra sets of eyes help them to find food such as your bird feeder and they also help other birds find food in the winter as well," she says, pointing out that the birds find and feed on frozen insects or insect eggs inside trees. 

So don't worry if you forget to fill your bird feeder. Froese says the diet of the chickadee is 50 per cent insects and 50 per cent seeds and berries and they eat snow or drink water from icicles to keep hydrated. 

"They seek out as much food as possible and work together to find that food." 

The alarm call of songbirds like the chickadee is understood by other species (Vancouver Park Board)

Once the daily feeding frenzy is finished the chickadee finds a tiny hole or cavity in a tree for shelter. They also bring a snack with them, so as soon as they wake up in the morning they have a seed ready to eat. That bit of breakfast brings their body temperature back to normal. 

Chickadees can also forecast the weather. Froese says the bird has a structure in its middle ear that can sense dropping barometric air pressure and can detect when a blizzard is approaching. When that happens they begin a feeding frenzy. This helps them store fats in case they can't venture out for a while. 

"They stock up," Froese says. "That's something humans can learn from them — stock up ahead of a big winter snow storm event."

The chickadee is also an effective communicator, using more than14 types of calls. Some are for flocking, others for mating. There's the well-known call that sounds like the word chickadee. But then there's the one Froese hopes to hear sometime soon. 

"There's one that I think sounds like spring's here. It's a mating call. Once spring rolls around those flocks break up and they pick a spot for a male and a female to nest."

Here's hoping we hear chickadees announce that spring is here soon.


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