How do birds keep warm?

I’m currently visiting Chicago, relishing the finger-stiffening, face-numbing cold and wind that make up a proper midwest winter. Whenever I look out from the warmth of my big puffy coat and see a bird, I feel a little bad for enjoying the weather so much. I can go home and make myself hot tea; they can’t.

Very cold Tree Swallows. Photo by Keith Williams

Very cold Tree Swallows (up in the Yukon, not Chicago!). Photo by Keith Williams

Like mammals, birds are endothermic (“warm-blooded”), meaning that they maintain their body temperature independent of the outside environment. This almost always means keeping themselves warmer than the outside air. Birds have quite high natural body temperatures, even higher than ours, so any given outside temperature seems even colder to them than it does to us.

Birds are also smaller than we are (well, omitting the ostrich), which means that they have a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio than we do. This is a problem because the volume  (inside) of an animal is where heat is produced and stored, while the surface (skin) of the animal is where heat is lost to the environment. Imagine holding your hand in a bitter wind: how would you keep it warm? By making a fist. Making a fist reduces the surface-area-to-volume ratio of your hand, and lets it keep warm longer. In contrast, if you hold your hand out flat with all the fingers spread, your surface-area-to-volume ratio is larger, and your hand will get cold very quickly. Because birds have higher surface-area-to-volume ratios than we do, keeping warm is harder for them. How do they do it?

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