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Winter Roosts | How Birds Survive Winter’s Night Frosts


A winter’s night can be one of the most challenging experiences if you are a bird. Small birds can lose up to 20pc of their body weight overnight in the cold. To cope, they feed-up as much as they can in the hours before nightfall. If you watch the birds in your garden each afternoon the feeding frenzy that takes place during these crucial hours can feel like a race.

The smaller the bird, the more resourceful it needs to be. The population of tree sparrows at my home and gallery at Fotherdale Farm near Thixendale numbers more than 60. Every afternoon I watch with amazement as they empty the seed from my three-foot-long feeders. Woodpeckers, tits, and finches also feed furiously. And, as dusk falls a family of long-tailed tits turn up for a final top-up from my hanging fat bars. I have a kestrel that swoops in to snatch a mouse off my special bird of prey table and the local sparrowhawk flashes by trying to take advantage of the all the hustle and bustle at the feeders and catch a bird off guard.

Then as night falls all turns quiet. So where do all the birds go at night? And how do they manage to survive such cold temperatures? It’s all a case of finding a warm place to roost and most birds will have a favourite. Often, they choose sites that they have tried and tested whilst bringing up their broods during the summer months. But, it’s not all about warmth – safety is a priority too. Any small bird that has left itself visible is in danger of being plucked from its perch by a watchful tawny owl. Disused nest boxes are one of the best places to take refuge, particularly for tits and tree sparrows.

Shrubs and ivy climbing over a wall provide shelter for many others. Love it or hate it, the much-maligned leylandi hedge is actually a safe haven for thrushes and blackbirds. Pied wagtails are resident on the Wolds in summer, when insects are abundant, but they tend to leave upland areas when temperatures drop and often choose a surprising alternative for their winter roosting. Some head off to town where they can glean warmth from street lights and Christmas decorations huddling up to them while they sleep. Read my blog post about a particularly festive pied wagtail roost above York’s Parliament Street Christmas Market by clicking here.

Others choose heated greenhouses as their yuletide home. If the conditions are right, you find enormous flocks overwintering in the same place. A friend of mine has three acres of greenhouses where strawberries are grown all year round. He has counted over 450 pied wagtails taking advantage of the artificial warmth. The dunnocks at Fotherdale surprise me by roosting in tall dwarf conical conifers in the garden all year round.

Long-tailed tits have a special way of coping with the cold. Roosting family groups huddle in tightly packed clumps for warmth. It can be difficult to distinguish individual birds. The best thing to do is to count the tails! A bird that has adopted a similar strategy is the wren. In spite of their territorial tendency, wrens put aside their differences in cold weather to share body heat. As night falls they can appear from all directions to roost communally.

Long Tail Tits on Catkins, art print, by Robert E Fuller, Click to buy.

A neighbour once told me he had wrens roosting in a nest box, so at dusk, we watched from his kitchen window as eight wrens popped into the nest box one by one. This, however, is nothing in comparison to the famous instance where 61 wrens were counted coming out of the same box. And in February 1979 96 wrens were counted in the roof eaves of one lucky cottage in Gloucestershire. At Fotherdale, the wrens are sparser. I have just two sharing a roosting pouch on the porch. I usually slip a secret supply of mealworms near them to keep them going. If the dish runs out the male will often fly in front of me to attract my attention, flashing his wing to let me know they need a top-up.

Jenny Wren, art print by Robert E Fuller. Click to Buy

Try not to be too quick with your garden maintenance this winter. A hole in your garden shed or broken pane of glass opens the door for a robin to take cover among your garden tools. My resident kestrel usually takes cover nearby in a farm building. A pile of pellets and white droppings are the only clue that he has been there, since this bird hunts until dusk and is usually out again before dawn breaks the following morning. Red-legged partridges also roost huddled together and often on the roof of my gallery. It’s not the warmest of places to spend the night, but I expect they choose the height of the building to escape the attention of local foxes. One particularly frosty night, a covey of partridges appeared under my bird table. Their backs were encrusted with haw frost. I looked up at the roof slates and saw a perfect frost-free print of where the partridges had spent the night. Click here to also read about a group of partridges huddled together from the cold appeared straight out of my painting of this scene. 

Each January gardeners are asked to join RSPB’s Big Annual Garden Birdwatch, an annual bird census held to count the number of species in their gardens. If you plan to take part spare a thought for how the birds you see are coping with the cold each night.


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