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10 Neat Things About Birds
by Dorothy Dobbie
by Dorothy Dobbie

The Local Gardener magazines, Ontario Gardener, Manitoba Gardener and Alberta Gardener, are published by Pegasus Publications Inc.

Drawing on her 30 years' experience as a senior executive in the magazine publishing industry, Dorothy launched Manitoba Gardener in 1998, initially running the business out of her home. Two years later, Dorothy's daughter Shauna, living in Ontario, jumped into the fray with Ontario Gardener. And two years after that, they started Alberta Gardener. Visit us at and register for our "Ten Neat things" newsletter. Watch Shaw TV for garden tips and Listen to CJOB for the Gardener Sundays at 9:08

February 6, 2011

1. How do birds keep warm in the winter?

"The north wind doth blow, and we shall have snow

And what will cock robin do then, poor thing?

He'll hide in the barn, to keep himself warm,

and hide his head under his wing, poor thing."

So goes the 16th Century child's verse and it's fairly accurate. Birds look for sheltered spots , in trees and under eaves to huddle out of the cold. They also fluff up their feathers, which are specially oiled to keep out damp and which provide a nice layer or warm air as insulation. Their legs and feet are specially designed so as to not "feel" cold. They can regulate blood flow to extremities to reduce the loss of heat.

2. Birds of a feather flock together. Many small birds will huddle together to survive the cold. Small birds will roost in large flocks in a small space to share body heat. Shivering helps too. Some enter into a state of torpor to conserve energy and get through the night. Their body temperatures, normally seven or eight degrees higher than yours and mine, will drop as much as 50% in this state.

3. Toothless and nothing tastes that good. The sensory stimuli that keep us eating too much are not a problem for birds. They have no teeth and their sense of taste is not that good. The jury is still our on how much some birds can smell, (except for the carrion class, although what we perceive as "smell" may be some other mechanism for birds.) It is believed that some migrating birds use this sense of "smell" to find their way home, but others believe they navigate by way of the earth's magnetic field. (That must be confusing today with the magnetic north pole on the move at the rate of 65 km per year!)

4. Birds are hot! With a body temperature in the 104 to 106 degree F range, birds burn a lot of energy. Not only that, but their heart rates range from 400 beats per minute to 1,000 beats per minute when flying. However, when in a state of torpor, heart rates can drop 95%!

5. Feathers are heavy, if you're a bird that is. Feathers outweigh a bird's skeleton. Air sacs make up 20% of a bird's weight.

6. Birds are built for speed. When migrating, pigeons can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour in flight and some birds such as swifts, sandpipers and the seemingly sluggish dove cruise at 200 miles per hour. Even the tiny hummingbird can make 200 miles per hour. Around home, speeds are slower: the little robin's speed is about 30 to 36 miles an hour, fairly normal for birds lingering in the back yard area.

7. High, high like a bird in the sky. Most birds fly around 500 feet above earth except during migration when they like to cruise in the 10,000 to 20,000 feet range.

8. The amazing chimney swift. This little bird was built for the air. In fact, it cannot walk and has only enough leg strength to cling to a chimney, braced by its tail feathers, overnight. It does nearly everything in the air, including mating and feasting on flying insects, It builds its nest on the side of a chimney or tree, collecting the materials on the fly and using saliva to stick the twigs and other materials into half-cup-shaped nest. Bird's nest soup, a delicacy in China, is made from the nest of the chimney swift.

9. Perfect pitch. Birds have specialized hearing which may account for their lovely songs. While humans hear sound in bursts of 1/20th of a second long, birds can hear it at burst of 1/200th of a second, ten time the number of notes we can hear in the same period.

10. Talking in vitro. Chicks can hear their moms while still inside the shell and quail chicks actually communicate with each other in the egg, timing their hatching to within a few hours of each other. Mother birds rely on sound rather than sight to recognize their young. They also identify their mates by sound.

- Dorothy Dobbie

Copyright © Pegasus Publications Inc.

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