Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Do birds need to bathe during the winter?

Q: In the summer, watching birds clean their feathers is an everyday thing. Somewhere, I read that birds need to keep their plumage very clean in order to fly. I enjoy watching birds, but never see them cleaning their feathers in the winter. Do you have any thoughts about this?

— Nancy, Putney, Vt.

A: It is important that bird feathers can be fluffed to insulate them and keep in body heat. In short, in winter, birds will fluff up their feathers to trap body heat and if one was to bathe during cold weather, they would die of hypothermia.

I will tread lightly and say that in below freezing weather, birds will not bathe, even in a heated bird bath. To be on the safe side, if you want to provide water and have a heated bird bath, lower the water so that it is too shallow to allow bathing. Better yet insert a wire mesh or screen that will only allow the birds to drink rather than bathe. However, as just said, birds will not bathe in water when air temperature is below freezing. I don't know about taking sand bathes in the winter. I would imagine they will when conditions allow.

Occasionally, in temperatures just above freezing, I have put out plant saucers with warm water. At first, I was surprised how interested the birds were. I do have a heated bird bath, but wanting to keep our electric bill at a minimum have not used it lately; one of the first things I stopped after retirement.

Q: We have three bluebird houses. When should I put these houses back up? Some years ago, when I first put up houses, I noticed in the spring that there was a mouse in one of them, so I began taking them down for the winter.

— Peter, New Ashford, Mass.

A: I read in Birds and Blooms magazine, "Winter Birds Myth: You should take birdhouses down in winter because birds don't use them, and other creatures will move in. Winter Birds Fact: On the contrary! A birdhouse makes a great roosting house in winter. Eastern bluebirds will pile into houses to spend cold nights. One photographer once even snapped a picture of 13 male bluebirds in a single house!"

As far as your houses are concerned, they can be put up anytime now. In fact, they should have been cleaned out last fall and left in place through the winter to be checked again about now to be sure the house(s) are clean and welcoming nurseries. The reason I suggest this? I agree with Birds and Blooms. Bluebirds and other small birds that are cavity nesters may use the boxes for winter roosting. One of the more common box roosting species is the chickadee. Also, the titmouse, downy woodpecker and nuthatch.

In addition to allowing nesting boxes for roosting, some enthusiasts also make or purchase specific boxes for this purpose. And while there is no fixed size for winter boxes, just follow these suggestions: Your roosting box, at first glance, will resemble a nesting box, only larger. Twice the size for instance, with a slightly larger entrance hole (no larger than 2 inches) to allow easier access, and more importantly, the hole should be near the bottom rather than top to prevent rising heat from escaping. Have fewer ventilation and drainage holes and add a layer of wood chips on the bottom to allow easy winter cleaning. Also important, construct with a thicker material for better insulation or, if specifically a roosting box for winter use, paint the outside with a non-toxic dark paint to increase solar heating. Do not paint the interior of the box.

Inside, have perches to allow for more birds within without suffocating. Also score the inner walls or provide coated wire mesh. Another good idea is a metal guard to prevent predators from entering. Add a second entrance hole to larger roost boxes to allow birds easy exit when they are threatened. And if a second hole is added, close off air vents, if any. And block the second hole if only a few birds are using the box. Plug unnecessary air leaks.

Like a nesting box, it should have a hinged side or bottom to facilitate cleaning. This should be done throughout the winter. And if you need a pattern, computer search for wild bird winter roosting box. You will find both ready made for purchase or free designs and ideas. Try to follow or purchase one that includes the previous suggestions.


I often receive questions like the following, received by Mass Audubon, in essence: "Why are there no birds?" Where there were once a lot of birds in the yard or at feeders, now there are almost none.

How come? Unless there has been a significant change in the immediate area of a feeder, or in the local habitat, the answer will usually be explained by population dynamics. Populations of all songbirds are subject to natural fluctuations from year to year. These are usually associated with widespread success or failure during the breeding season, which in turn is related to weather, food supply, predators and other conditions.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch @ or write him care of

The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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