Lowest Temperature For Softbills?
When keeping birds year round in outside aviaries, dealing with weather generally leads to lots of worry, especially in the winter. As a long time breeder of various types of softbills housed in outside aviaries year round, I have often been asked what is the minimum temperature that a certain softbill species can take. Most aviculturists, me included, would love it if someone could answer this question definitively, because it would make wintering birds outside much less stressful, for us and our beloved avians.
Unfortunately, the question and the answers are not that clear cut. While it may be a starting point, being told a minimum temperature doesn’t really tell you whether or not it is safe for your birds.
Actually, most birds in aviculture can take a range of temperatures. In the wild, it is natural for them to deal with changes in temps within a 24 hour period as well as seasonal changes. Birds that are kept at constant temperatures throughout their lives are typically not as hardy as birds that are allowed to experience variations, so weather changes can be beneficial.
Temperatures too hot or too cold do stress birds more though. Most birds can handle temperatures in the 40-50’s degrees Fahrenheit, but what about lower? What about temperatures at or below freezing? Frustrating as the truth is, there are many other variables to consider when housing outdoor birds, and this makes each outdoor aviary situation unique. No one answer fits all.
So, when queried, all I can do is to tell of my experiences and make recommendations so the aviculturist can make their own decisions. Despite over 25 years of housing birds outside, I still make mistakes and worry about my flock every winter. Mistakes can be devastating, and severe weather can lead to frostbite issues, loss of toes or limbs, and even death.
Weather is unpredictable, although watching weather reports certainly helps. And weather can change rapidly. An aviculturist needs to be flexible, observant, and well prepared.
How do you decide what to do to ensure that your outside birds survive the winter as comfortably as possible? Below are some points to consider when overwintering birds. Many of these points should also be considered if housing birds in hot weather too.
First of all, any bird that is to spend the winter outside needs to be careful acclimated. Acclimating a bird requires time, usually weeks, during the fall season so the bird can gradually get used to the colder weather as it naturally occurs in that area.
If I receive a bird in the colder winter months, it will not go outside until spring. Even if coming from another person’s outside flights. This is mainly since I do not really know to what weather variables the new bird is acclimated. For example, the winters in Sacramento, CA are quite different than Eugene, OR.
Consider the Aviary Conditions
Exposure to Elements:
Each aviary is so different! Generally aviary birds need protection from heavy rains, winds, and snow, as well as severe heat. Aviaries can be designed with roofs over all or part of the structure, as well as one or more solid walls. Large plants and trees give protection too.
Be careful with snow in the flights. Make sure there are lots of dry perches available. The deeper the snow, the more potential problems. If panicked, birds can get trapped in snow drifts. Always provide a dry, snow-free ground area in which the birds can go. Ground birds are at risk of frostbite more so than other species since they are in the snow more.
Having some form of supplemental heat (heat lamps, heated perches, heated areas) can certainly help birds deal with the cold – if they use it. Birds can be…., well, bird brains when it comes to using the available heat. Just because you provide heat, doesn’t mean the birds will use it.
Birds often need to be encouraged to use the heat by placing perches higher in roofed and heated areas. Food and water can be provided in the heated areas. Solid walls in a heated area can help hold the heat.
In flights with multiple birds make sure there are enough heated areas for all. Birds still protect their personal space and are territorial when cold. The dominant bird may be the only one warm.
The length of time at low temperatures matters. Typically it is colder at night and warmer during the day. Birds can take a low temperature for short periods, but if the low temperature persists longer than a few hours, it becomes tougher on the bird. For instance, if the temp dips into the upper 20’s F. for a few hours at night and the bird does fine, it doesn’t mean the bird can take days of constant upper 20’s.
Protection from wind is key. Wind plus cold is devastating. Birds can take lower temperatures without wind than with it.
Birds can deal better with lower temperatures when the humidity is low. Raise the humidity, and they need higher temperatures.
Some aviculturists wrap plastic around their aviaries to hold in heat and protect from elements. This is great for that, but be careful as this often raises the humidity and hinders ventilation. Mold growth increases too, especially with species like fruit-eating softbills who have such copious and wet feces.
Several bird species can handle low temperatures if it is sunny during the day for a few hours. Does the aviary get exposed to the sun? The ability to sun themselves and heat up naturally helps combat the cold.
Consider the Bird
Each species handles temperatures differently. Know your species’ anatomy and physiology, and the climate and habitat to which they are native. Some birds, such as Tockus hornbills, have thin feathering and do not handle low temperatures well. Long legged birds can be more prone to frostbite issues.
Birds native to mountainous areas usually can take low temperatures better than those from lower elevations.
Consider how you are housing the birds too. Offering nest boxes or logs to birds who sleep in them will help keep them more comfortable and warmer during those cold nights. For example, barbets roost inside logs/nestboxes so should be offered them.
Birds who cluster together at night do better at low temps when kept in pairs or groups. For example, mousebirds hang belly to belly in groups at night which helps kept them warm. A single mousebird would not do as well at the same temps.
Some temperature-tough (around freezing) species in my experience:
Diamond Doves Pekin Robins White Cheek Turacos
Zebra Doves Bulbuls Red Crest Finches
Parakeets White Back Mousebirds Society Finches
Age & Health:
Old, young, sub adult, and sick birds are more stressed by cold. Birds with any feather loss or condition issues are at more risk in colder temps. For example, mature lapwings are quite hardy but are temperature delicate for their first year.
Stressed birds do not do as well in cold temperatures. Birds that are stressed by netting, housing or diet changes, crowded conditions, etc can be in danger. Cold birds will naturally be less active and often fluff more as they conserve energy. Do whatever you can to avoid stressing birds dealing with cold temperatures into undue activities.
Make sure that the birds have fresh, unfrozen water and food at all times. Don’t let bowls go empty and frozen water deceive you. Birds can’t drink ice and quickly get dehydrated in the cold. Fresh fruits and veggies will freeze also.
Check the birds several times during the day and leave a night light on so they can eat whenever they need. Birds will need to eat more during cold weather to keep their energy up.
When in doubt or in severe weather emergencies, it is usually safer to pull the birds into heated indoor enclosures. However, only heat the indoor enclosures to the minimally accepted temperatures otherwise the birds will be in shock and stressed once released back into their regular winter flights. No pampering them with temps in the 80’s F, as it would be “de-acclimating” them. And, try to make the decision to pull them in before the severe cold hits.
Netting stress can be dangerous at low temperatures. Chasing birds in severe cold or hot weather can kill them in the net or cause them to die a few hours later. It can be a real dilemma whether to chase to net the birds or see if they can make it through the cold snap. Plan ahead how you will get the birds safely moved to the heated enclosures in an emergency.
Hopefully this article helps you make some decisions about housing birds during the winter. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions, comments, or want to hear more of my outside aviary experiences.
It can be the most nerve-wracking time of the year, but, above all, remember spring will come!
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