WHICH BIRDS WILL BE VISITING YOU THIS WINTER?
It seems that the chirping hubbub has subsided, all the birds have migrated south and are in Cancun by now, enjoying a martini on the beach.
But not all birds go south when Jack Frost comes around. Some stick around to cheer us with a little chirp as the dawn cracks - which thanks to clock changes has made sunrise a little later, so no more 4 am calls!
With the trees bare, parks less crowded, it is much easier to play "spot the bird."Here’s a great tool for when you see a bird and want to identify it. Or if there’s one you’d really like to see and you want to know if it’s spending winter (or summer) in your area:
Run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this site is managed by an international team of scientists and regional experts who provide up-to-date information about more than 600 bird species! Type the name of any bird you want to know more about and the abundant maps will tell you if they are in your region!
I have compiled two lists of which birds to expect in your backyards and forests.
List 1: Common birds in your backyard.
List 2: Rare birds in your backyard which you’ll be lucky to spot.
So fill up your bird feeders, pull up a couch at your window or glass door - winter schminter - this is the best show in town!
Let us begin with list 1: Common birds to see in the winter.
1. AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES
It is always a joy to see this brilliant yellow flyer gracing our trees and bird feeders during the summer. But once the rituals of summer mating are over, the orange bill fades and the yellow turns into an olive-green.
The only way to identify this lovely bird then is to look at the flight feathers and tail. The males will keep the jet black of their wings and tail and the females sport a brownish black hue.
This mechanism of color fading helps the American goldfinch to survive during the winter. Predators such as hawks can spot their bright yellow livery a million miles away, especially in the winter where there are no leaves to hide in. (Try telling that to the Cardinals!)
Being visible in the summer is a risk worth taking for mating purposes. Their yellow feathers, a result of the kind of seeds the finches eat, make the males look healthy and attractive to the females. But after the eggs have been laid and the young’uns have left the nest, there is no point in taking the risk of looking attractive anymore - until the next mating season. The female herself has no interest in showing yellow feathers - since she is the one who incubates the eggs, she must be as inconspicuous as possible to all the predators around.
WHAT TO FEED AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES IN THE WINTER: Luring these lovelies in the winter doesn’t take much. A window-feeder, tray or tube feeder with nyjer seeds (their favorite) or hulled sunflower seeds will do the trick!
Black oil/striped/hearts of sunflower
For more on American goldfinches, click here.
2. NORTHERN CARDINALS
We all dreams to have this fiery red splash of wonder in our feeders by the window. Like the Christmas tree, the warm glow will take the doldrums out of any grey day.
They may have visited your garden during summer and fall and perhaps seemed slightly grey or patchy due to molting, but now, they are bright red. They become even redder once their mating has finished and all their grey feathers have been replaced. Unlike the American goldfinch who loses its color for fear of predators, these cardinals flaunt their red like there’s no tomorrow!
But fear not, they conduct their business, nesting and feeding, in secluded areas. When they come out to hunt and fly, that’s when we enjoy the show!
If your bird feeder is active and ready to go, they will come in greater numbers and sing their beautiful songs. Natural sources dwindle dramatically in winter, so bird feeders can be life savers - and now’s the time for your bird feeder to shine. And if you have snow in your backyard, the contrast of the warm red and the pale snow is heaven.
WHAT TO FEED NORTHERN CARDINALS IN THE WINTER: Northern Cardinals love blueberries, clematis, grapevines and hawthorn. They usually find shelter in evergreens (pines and spruces) so the nearer you are to these trees, and if you have the right bird feeder in your garden - the greater your chance to see them.
Window feeders are highly recommended so that you can see these red beauties up close.
Black oil/striped/shelled sunflower seeds
For more on Northern cardinals, click here.
3. MOURNING DOVES
WAIT! Don’t move on to the next bird… just yet.
Yes, we see them all year round and they’re not the most colourful bird. We love their coo, coo, coo which gives them their name, but basically they are a common or garden bird, nothing to write home about.
But a little known fact is that mourning doves are not really winter creatures. They have changed their habits for some mysterious reason which nobody can understand.
See, mourning doves migrate in a “differential” manner - according to sex and age. They migrate south as the temperatures start to dip: first the juveniles, then the females - and lastly the males.
But lately the males have decided to up their game and not migrate at all in the winter so that they can establish their roost and “plant their flag first” in the best breeding territories.This comes at a great sacrifice, as mourning doves are not accustomed to such low temperatures and it actually causes them physical harm, such as frostbite and loss of nails. If you look closely at your feeder, you will find that most of the mourning doves are male and many have physical injuries.
However - it works. The mourning dove is the only bird to populate all states of the US including Hawaii. Though their population has dwindled as hunters go after them, it is still a wonder to see them in our parks and backyards.
WHAT TO FEED MOURNING DOVES IN WINTER: Mourning doves fly in large flocks, especially to bodies of fresh water and where bird feeders are offered. They are not fussy about the company they keep at food sources - heck, you might even see them dining with squirrels.
Platform feeders are your best bet, as mourning doves peck what they find on the ground - grass, weeds, seeds etc. You might notice them perched up high on telephone wires and posts. They sit there to digest what they just consumed. Digest with a view!
They peck from bird feeders, but don’t usually stay long due to their small size, which is why we recommend platform feeders. Berry bushes or seed-bearing flowers are a great source of food for these doves. Even better, if they get used to a feeder, they’ll keep coming back to it.
All forms of sunflower seeds.
To uncover more mysteries about the mourning dove, click here.
4. AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS
Despite their name, American tree sparrows actually nest in flat lands. In the winter they roost mostly in suburban areas, open country, grasses and marshes.
American tree sparrows go further north than any other songbird, and spend their winters in the northern US. Known as Winter Sparrows, these little fluffed-up balls fly in small flocks until spring when they return to the cold north. You will hear the male sing his melodious departing song as they head up back to the Arctic and subarctic regions.
It’s worth learning how to identify these lovelies because they are brown and camouflage themselves well in the bushes. But once you get to know them, you will see them everywhere!
Come hail, blizzard or snow, American tree sparrows fly and forage in small flocks, searching for any kind of dried seeds on the ground such as catkins, berries, goldenrod, aster, crabgrass or fallen thistle. They are quite nifty: they beat the grass seed-heads sticking up out of the snow with their wings to release seeds which they then peck from the ground. They are hilarious to watch as they hop back and forth before pouncing in for the seed.
American tree sparrows eat from platform or tray feeders usually shared with dark-eyed juncos among others, or just on your grass.
Any mix of nyger, sunflower chips and classic bird seed.
For more on the American Tree Sparrow, click here.
5. BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES
Chickadees are winter survivors who have developed mechanisms to withstand the most frigid weather - even when it's 0 Fahrenheit on a sunny day.
They are insulated with almost half an inch of plumage, akin to us sleeping under a nice, warm duvet on the coldest day. This insulation can raise the birds’ temperature up to 100 F, even when it dips close to 0 outside.
Another way to keep warm is to keep moving! These busy little creatures move and flit around so much just to keep warm. It takes a lot of energy so their food intake is in proportion to the shivering.
According to Susan M. Smith, who has been crowned the "doyenne of chickadee research" by National Wildlife magazine, “Carefully hidden food items, dense winter coats, specially selected winter roost cavities and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the ability to go into nightly hypothermia, thus conserving large amounts of energy, greatly increase the chances of survival.”
Therefore it stands to reason that this little cutie-pie will be one of the visitors in your backyard. They need as many seeds as they can lay their beak on. Interestingly, it has been proven that if our bird feeders were taken away, these chickadees would still survive - and thrive - by getting the nutrition they need from insect eggs and wild seeds. Unless it dips below -10F when it starts getting a little tough!
Black capped chickadees are not too fussy about the type of feeder but they feel most comfortable in tray, tube or hopper feeders. Suet feeders are even better.
Also, if possible, place the feeder next to a natural shelter for them to hide in when predators are around. And if this shelter has roosting options, all the better!
Black oil sunflower seeds (shelled or unshelled)
For more on Black Capped Chickadees, click here.
6. CAROLINA WRENS
Because of the tropical roots of this boisterous and spritely bird, winters can be really tough for the poor Carolina wren. For them, excavating seeds from the snow is a tough task.
And since they fly in pairs and not in flocks, keeping warm is even harder. If a Carolina wren doesn’t make it, the surviving mate is in jeopardy. Same goes for juveniles who fly north in the winter to find breeding territory.
This is where bird feeders are their sanctuary, as well as nesting/roosting boxes with slit openings. It is vital to keep them full, as well as clean, throughout the season. This is absolutely key for their survival, especially in the harshest and the deepest of winters.
It’s a win-win. They have a safe place to live and we enjoy the sound of their music, their curious nature and general overall sweetness.
Carolina Wrens prefer suet feeders. However they can happily peck on peanuts from tube feeders and sunflower seeds from platform feeders.
For more on Carolina Wrens, click here
7. CEDAR WAXWINGS
These handsome songbirds are easy to identify by the striking black mask on the face and the bright red and waxy tips on the secondary feathers, the feathers that give them flight. They have brownish-grey tails with yellow tips and a lighter lemon yellow on their breasts.
Breeding in northern America, we are lucky they are a common sight in winter in the northern US.
Cedar waxwings love their berries not only in the winter, but all year round - in fact it’s 80% of their diet, though in the spring and summer they will “settle” for insects as well. They love cedar berries as their name implies, juniper, mistletoe, honeysuckle, crabapple and hawthorn.
Little fact: When the berries get overripe, they become fermented. This causes the waxwing cedars to get a bit tipsy… and therefore some may crash into your window. If you find a bird "under the influence," best take it to your local veterinarian.
Only 18% of cedar waxwings winter in Mexico while the rest stay in the US. This is a good reason to have plants with berries in your garden as they and pretty much all the birds on this list love to eat them in the winter.
It’s a lot of fun to see flocks of them flit around berry branches chirping and pecking as they go. They are not loners, as they love company all year round.
Entertaining to watch, these birds will sometimes stand in a line and pass a berry from beak to beak until one of them finally gulps it!
WHAT TO FEED YOUR WAXWING CEDARS
An assortment of berries on a platform feeder is a great way to attract them. When you see which ones are most popular, you will know what to serve in the future:
Winter cedar berries
Russian olive fruits.
For more on cedar waxwings, click here.
8. DARK-EYED JUNCOS
If you love the winter months, you’ll know it’s time to chop wood for the fireplace when you see these charcoal-black fluffy birds with their white stomachs! If you are not a winter fan, take solace in the fact that these little birds are a joy to have around your bird feeders!
A harbinger of winter, the junco - known as “the snowbird” - migrates from Canada, Alaska and the northern US for a warmer winter.
If anything, dark eyed juncos are hard working birds! They wake up before dawn and never cease flitting about and working till after dusk. They rummage for seeds, picking food from where they can - ragweed, foxtail and crabgrass and even leftovers from squirrels who may have dropped some seeds on the ground.
If a flock of juncos see you coming toward them, they’ll flash their wings in a sea of white. This may be to warn the rest of the flock against predators or to “shock” the predator and give themselves time to flee. You may notice that they nest on the ground as well. I don’t think they got the memo that this is not the best defence against predators…
Luckily for us, juncos are some of the most popular birds to see in the winter. They have something for winter lovers AND winter haters: They are a joy to see as they symbolize the arrival of winter and - if you are a winter hater - just before juncos leave, they sing the most beautiful, harmonious tune to indicate that they are going back up north - and you will know for sure that spring is here.
Though part of the sparrow family, black eyed juncos flock with other types of birds, so, in order to identify them from the rest, look out for the conspicuous pink bill.
Ground feeders or open trays are the best for dark-eyed juncos. Natural elements could include ragweed, grass, chickweed, coneflowers and marigolds. They can also peck on a juicy berry which you left for the cedar waxwings from a berry shrub.
White proso millet seeds
Shelled sunflower seeds
Finely cracked corn
9. EASTERN BLUEBIRDS
Bluebirds are actually new guests in the northern US. They used to migrate to the southern states and Mexico for the winter but according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, it seems that they are staying put in our colder climes in the Northern US. Maybe the winters are getting milder, but it seems some bluebirds stay for the season, perhaps not wanting to take the long flight, and also stick around to stake their claim for good breeding territory.
Small flocks spend the night in tree holes or other shelters. A good reason to consider leaving your nest boxes up for the season. Some do still migrate and others don’t. This could change - if the winters get colder, they could all just head south.
WHAT TO FEED EASTERN BLUEBIRDS IN THE WINTER:
Ground, tray or platform feeders with mealworms are the way to go, as well as suet feeders. Also, peanut butter mixes go down well, as well as raisins, preferably soaked in hot water. Having sumac, holly, and elderberry in your garden is an extra bonus.
Suet (fruit or insect blends)
For more on Eastern bluebirds, click here.
10. NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDS
Though not the most colorful bird out there, each has its own special and unique behavior. Mockingbirds are very talkative from dawn till dusk - not only do they talk but they can imitate anything from a jay to a piano! After all, they are “mocking” birds.
It makes me shudder to think how the numbers of these little ones dropped during the 18th and 19th centuries, as then they were captured, caged and sold as pets. Thankfully the caged bird trade was stopped, the mockingbird returned to nature and became common again.
If you’ve never seen a northern mockingbird, you’ve definitely heard them! Mainly the un-mated mockingbirds still crooning for a partner, especially late at night. Of course they have their own calls, but why use them if you can imitate pretty much anything? Mockingbirds are known for mocking not only 30 types of birds including orioles and hawks, but even dogs, frogs and sirens. But my favorite is the piano!
Like most winter birds, you take what you can get. And berries are the main item on the menu for northern mockingbirds, as insects are now scarce. So many birds love berries which is why Northern Mockingbirds defend their winter feeding territories against other robins, starlings, woodpeckers and others who also compete for the same food.
WHAT TO FEED NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRDS
Planting bushes with berries is a wonderful way to have a bunch of mockingbirds keeping you company on the coldest of days. They love the berries of bushes such as elderberry, blackberry, juniper and pokewood - even poison ivy.
Mockingbirds are not great fans of bird feeders - they prefer their berry bushes. But you could possibly attract them with a suet feeder or just leave them a piece of orange, apple or finely chopped peanuts.
SEEDS AND FRUIT
Peanuts (finely chopped)
11. TUFTED TITMICE
Tufted Titmouse are regulars at bird feeders, especially in winter. They are hoarders, the good kind! (like chickadees and tits.) Titmice take advantage of bird feeders by taking and storing as many seeds they can get. The “storage houses” are within 130 feet of the feeder. They take one seed per trip which they shell before hiding.
Titmice are so much fun to watch! First off they don’t travel in flocks, but rather in pairs year-round, maybe even with their offspring. They are hilarious to watch - like little acrobats, they climb all over your feeders in every direction, zipping in and out of bushes taking seeds to their caches. And they are quite cheeky: they actually pluck hair off animals to build their nests - cattle, raccoons, opossums, mice, dogs and even humans. And you will never notice it happening!
Hopper, suet, platform, tube.
Black oil Sunflower
Sunflower hearts and chips
For more on tufted titmice, click here
12. WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES
Of all your bird-feeder regulars, nuthatches are the “nut”iest! They have their own quirky erratic moves, whizzing up, down and sideways on trees. Their calls are also amusing with funny squeaks.
In the winter, nuthatches jam big seeds and nuts into tree bark before hacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seeds. Hence their name: nuthatch. Like titmice, scientists have observed white hatched nuthatches living in flocks, sometimes mixing with chickadees and titmice to stand up against predators. They also hoard and cache seeds for when the weather gets colder. The males are not the most gentleman-like, pushing females aside at the feeders to get to the seed before them.
Another interesting behavior trait is that like titmice, white-breasted nuthatches also cache food - but this is because nuthatches tend to steal from one another. In order to hide their loot, they actually fly all over the place to avoid being followed, then quickly stash their seeds.
WHAT TO FEED WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES
White-breasted nuthatches will visit a suet bird feeder that offers nuts, sunflower seeds, live mealworms, suet, and peanut butter,
Black oil sunflower
Sunflower hearts and chips.
13. WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS
The sight of a white-throated sparrow is another sign that winter is upon us.
Their breeding range is around the wooded parts of Canada. They spend 6 months in the US starting with the winter in Maine south to the Gulf Coast. Both sexes have a patch of clear white on the throat which makes it easy to identify which sparrow is singing to you. They also have a yellow spot between the base of the bill and the eye.
The two-stripe conundrum: White-throated sparrows have two stripes along their wings: white and tan. It has nothing to do with sex or age but the mate always chooses the female with the opposite stripe!
White-throats build nests on or close to the ground, typically concealed beneath overhanging vegetation. They usually feed on the ground, on the seeds of grasses and weeds. During the breeding season, they also feed heavily on insects that they find in the leaf litter.
They form winter flocks of mixed sexes, ages, and "stripe." If you see one or two of these birds in a thicket, the chances are that there are more.
Oftentimes a strange noise - a "squeak" or a "pssh!" will cause all the birds in the flock to fly up to investigate the source.
WHAT TO FEED WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS
White-throated sparrows love bird feeders and will also peck at the fallen seeds beneath them. They feed on millet as well as sunflower seeds. If you make a brush pile in your yard, it will give them cover between their trips out into your yard to feed.
Sunflower/safflower/hearts and chips
OTHER WAYS TO KEEP THE BIRDS THRIVING IN WINTER:
Essential for birds, water can be scarce in winter. A natural water source such as a stream or pond is always great for the wintering songbirds, but the problem is that these water bodies often freeze in winter.
A heated bird bath can be a wonderful addition to your backyard. Any mechanism to prevent the water from freezing could actually save lives! Heating water is inexpensive and many birds will definitely use it - so it’s a win win.
This bath can be enjoyed during the other seasons as well, just start the heating when the temperature drops.
It is important to change the water from time to time to keep it fresh and running!
Berries for birdies
Many winter plants can provide food for birds that prefer seeds and berries such as Juniper, Sumac, Viburnum, Virginia Creeper, Service-berry, Winter berry, Holly, Bayberry and others. If you have the room, evergreen trees can provide seeds from cones, while Crab Apple trees provide seeds and fruit - for you too of course!
Berries are the easiest thing to offer, as most plants providing them are shrub-like and small.
If possible, keep your feathered friends under shelter.
Placing the bird feeder next to a shrub, brush pile or any kind of shelter will make the birds feel more at ease when visiting your feeder. Evergreen shrubs and trees if feasible, is a great saviour from the winter elements.
Discourage any cats who come visiting your yard - they are amongst the top causes of bird fatalities.
A word about tray feeders
A tray feeder keeps the seed off the ground. Seed tossed on the ground gathers moisture, causing it to spoil which can be harmful to the birds. It is helpful to have a feeder with an oversized roof or kept under shelter so the rain and snow don’t wet the seeds.
Project FeederWatch is the best info source to get more information about which food to give to which bird on which bird-feeder!
Don’t forget to check the next list where we will be discussing RARE birds!