willow tit perched on tree branch in winter.

How Do Birds Stay Warm in Winter? (Detailed Answer)

Birds have adapted over time to survive in different climates, from cold winters to hot summers. In order for birds to stay warm in the winter, they need to either migrate or find a way to protect themselves from the cold weather.

In this article we will explore how birds keep themselves warm during the winter months and what types of adaptations they have for surviving. Here are sixteen ways that birds deal with winter weather:

Birds keep warm using oils produced by body glands.

Cold winter nights will slow down the activities of birds. They should be able to maintain their body temperature by shivering and by gaining heat from sunlight, but this method is inefficient.

This is why birds use their feathers for insulation because they can trap air and make it more difficult for heat to escape from the animal’s body.

An efficient way that a bird keeps its own body warm during winter nights is through chemical reactions between its keratin (a tough protein) and oils produced by body glands (made up of two different kinds: sudoriparous and sebaceous).

Bird feathers are composed of shafts or quills.

Bird feathers are composed of shafts or quills, which are made up of layers of chitin, called the barbules. Feathers are also made up of down feathers, which are usually white and stiffer than the rest of the feather. This is because down feathers have outer barbs that are not as numerous as feather barbules.

Barbs trap air between their surfaces to insulate them.

The outer barbs trap air or air bubbles between their surfaces to insulate them from cold temperatures. Birds also use these two types of feathers for insulation in many ways, depending on their species. Feathers around the body may be used to keep it warm (if they trap air).

Feathers direct air currents to keep warm.

Feathers on the tail and the wing are used to direct air currents to keep warm. A bird can move its feathers to warm certain parts of its body. Birds also use their preen oils to help retain their body heat. Birds often preen their feathers before they go to sleep or when it is getting colder out.

Dense Feathers

Dense feathers trap air under them, creating an insulating layer of warm air around the bird’s body. This is called “air conditioning.” The feathers also add extra bulk, helping birds retain heat.

They will also often go into a state of torpor.

They will also often go into a state of torpor (to generate heat). Torpor is when a bird slows down its body functions to conserve heat and energy.  Torpor slows down their heart rate, lowers body temperature, as well as their metabolic rate and respiration.

Migratory Timing

Some birds migrate earlier in the winter, so they can reach warmer climates before temperatures really dip. They’ll use cold weather as an advantage to fly to warmer areas and set up territories earlier than other species, so they can stake claim to resources and attract mates when resources and competition are not as fierce.

Migratory timing works especially well for birds that fly long distances or migrate through multiple climates throughout the year. Species that don’t migrate may be at a disadvantage in the winter because they cannot move around for better conditions, leaving them stuck with limited food sources and limited room for territory expansion.

Fat Reserves

Fat is the densest form of energy storage, making it one of the best ways to stay warm during winter. Some birds, like owls, have thick layers of fat under their skin that help them withstand cold temperatures.


Preening is when birds clean their feathers with their beaks. This process redistributes oil from the preen glands in feathers to other parts of plumage, giving it an extra sheen and helping repel water, so feathers don’t freeze. The oils produced by preening also help keep water off of plumage, so birds can dry off quickly after bathing or rain.


In the winter, birds will perch together on branches to generate heat from their body heat and from each other’s body heat. This is also a defensive mechanism that works as a natural alarm system. When one bird is spooked by a predator, it will take off and flap its wings to warn the other birds around it of the threat.

Feather Fluffing

Feathers work as insulation by trapping air under them. When birds spread their feathers apart, they trap more air within them, creating an even warmer insulating layer than normal. It serves as both an alarm system and as extra insulation for harsh winter weather.


Birds will spread their wings out and bask in direct sunlight to warm up. They may even stand on branches, stretching their legs to pick up as much solar radiation as possible.

Special Adaptions

Birds that have adapted to colder climates, such as the Snow Bunting from the Arctic, whose feathers are designed to reflect heat back at it from the sun.

Nest Warmth

Some birds build nests with leaves, which make great insulation for cold weather because they help trap air underneath them.

Ruffled Feathers

Feathers are not just for body insulation. They’re also used for heat regulation, or shivering. When birds get too warm, they spread their feathers apart to let heat escape. Birds with white plumage will often ruffle their feathers to cool off when it gets too warm.

Huddling Together

Huddling together with other members of their species or others who have been displaced during migration.

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