On Tuesday the temperature was warm enough that with the sun beating down on the roofs of our house and shed, the snow was melting and dripping off in small rivulets, which turned into icicles when it reached the cooler, below-freezing air. When Dan came in from tossing the ball in the front yard for Raven, he pointed out the chickadees on the shed roof.
They were coming to drink at the trickles of snowmelt at the edge of the roof. Only the chickadees; I suppose because only the chickadees possessed the acrobatic ability to cling to the wooden edge below the tin roof as they sipped the water. Or perhaps the other species just hadn’t noticed, or figured it out, or plain weren’t thirsty, because I’d have to think that the goldfinches, at the very least, would also have been able to hang there. Still, it was just the chickadees, but it was a steady parade of them during the time I was watching.
Some would land on the snow first and then hop to the wooden edge, while others would fly straight to the perch. It was hard to see exactly where they were taking the water from, but they would lean forward for half a second, and then as they raised their heads again it was possible to observe their open bill, a characteristic posture while a bird is drinking. Whether they lean forward to scoop water out of a puddle, or collect it by some means such as this, the bird will let the water run into the concave hollow of their lower mandible, then tip their head up and allow it to trickle down their throat. This is what they’re doing while their bill is open.
In the winter water is hard to come by. Most of it is tied up in solid form, whether it be snow or ice. A few creeks and streams with faster moving water might remain open, but by and large there’s mainly two ways a bird can get water: by ingesting (and melting) snow, or by taking advantage of drips created by the sun doing the job for them. The latter is definitely the better option, because it takes a lot of the bird’s energy to melt snow. Or rather, it takes no energy at all to melt the snow, but it takes a lot of energy to prevent the body temperature from falling as the heat is drawn away and used to melt the snow.
We tend to think of bird baths as summer things, basins of fresh water that we maintain so the birds can splash and bathe. But in areas where there aren’t many open water sources, a bird bath can be an invaluable addition to your birdfeeding setup. Either buy a bird bath heater or agitator, or otherwise carry out a bowl of hot water twice a day to keep the water open. The birds will thank you for it. Dan and I don’t actually have a winter bird bath; since I’m not prepared to carry out water I’ve been waiting until we have some spare money I could use to buy some electronic gadget to do the job for me. Preferably a solar-powered one. This one, for instance, just uses the thermal energy of the sun to trap heat using a black cover. If you’re the handy type, you could even make your own.