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Weathering winter

One of my neighbors called the other day concerned about robins as the winter cold and snow embraced much of the state.

In severe weather, she said, the birds could use a little human help to survive, including putting out water.

From what I was able to find out, heated water sources can be helpful for birds. But experts cautioned that the water shouldn’t be too deep, otherwise the bird might try to bathe and freeze its feathers. You can keep the water shallow by adding rocks.

Other things humans can do is to provide high protein diets for birds in the winter. Mealworms are one such popular treat. Suet balls also provide a high-energy meal. Birds have to eat a lot to stay warm in winter, so spreading out seed to other sources — like dry spots under an evergreen — may also help.

Robins, which like to eat from fruit trees like mountain ash, will also dine on chopped up raisins or grapes.

Some birding sources suggested that bird lovers make wind breaks or put out small roosting boxes that allow the birds to find shelter.

Birds have to maintain a body temperature of about 105 degrees — that’s warmer than humans’ 98.6. One way birds survive the cold is by having legs and feet that can withstand being very cold, almost frozen but not quite.

Another way they stay warm is to keep their feathers fluffy. Fluffy feathers help trap warm air next to the birds’ bodies, kind of like a down coat or sleeping bag. Some birds will also huddle together for warmth or find holes in dead or dying trees to get out of the weather.

Birds like woodpeckers can make their own shelters by carving out a hole for the night in a rotting tree.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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