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Friday, November 18, 2011

Winter Feeder birds, bet you didn't know these things about them!

White-winged Crossbills, a winter "irruptive" species

What birds can you expect at your bird feeders in winter? Quite a few, if you keep your feeders well supplied with quality bird seeds and suet. A great number of birds that breed in the U.S., such as vireos, orioles, flycatchers, hummingbirds, warblers, thrushes, and swallows, etc. migrate south for the winter. However, many birds live in the same area all year round, and other birds will come to your feeders just in winter. Here are some feeder birds that you might expect.

Black-capped Chickadee

1. Black-capped Chickadees breed as pairs on their own territory. Come fall, they join up into flocks of about 6-10 birds or more, consisting of mated pairs and non-breeders, but not the offspring of the adult pairs. The flock remains on a winter territory of about 20 acres which they will defend from other chickadee flocks. If your feeding station is in their territory, they will visit every day. The flock has a pecking order and you can see the most dominant chickadees supplant the less dominant individuals at your feeder. Other species of birds, such as woodpeckers, titmice and kinglets, may temporarily join chickadee flocks as they move about the woods.

Tufted Titmouse

2. Tufted Titmice stay in family groups in the winter. The flocks move in a fixed range of about 15-20 acres. Titmice are conspicuous and vocal at feeders. Come spring, the flocks break up into breeding pairs and lone birds.

White-breasted Nuthatch

3. White-breasted Nuthatches are common feeder birds in much of the country. They stay as a pair throughout the year in a fairly fixed range of about 25-45 acres, but during breeding they claim a smaller portion of this range for a breeding territory. In winter, the ranges of nuthatches may overlap, so you may see more than one pair at your feeders. Nuthatches can climb, headfirst, down trees.

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpeckers are bigger than Downy Woodpeckers and have a comparatively longer bill

4. Downy Woodpeckers and their larger, look-alike relative, Hairy Woodpeckers, are found at feeders all across the country. They live as pairs through the year on a range of from 5-25 acres for the Downy, and from 6-8 acres for the Hairy. The ranges of neighboring woodpeckers may overlap, so you may see several pairs at your feeders, especially if you offer them suet. Woodpeckers don't sing, but communicate through drumming on resonant surfaces, like a tree trunk.

Northern Cardinal

5. Northern Cardinals live on a territory of about 3-10 acres. Some live there throughout the year. Other cardinals form into flocks in winter and go where there is plentiful food. In spring, they return to their breeding territories. Both male and female cardinals sing. Listen for them in spring.

American Goldfinches in winter plumage

6. American Goldfinches are beautiful feeder favorites. They're bright yellow in spring and molt into a more subtle brownish-gray plumage in winter. During breeding, they live on a territory of 1/4 to1 acre or more, which they defend from other goldfinches. Once breeding is over, they form into flocks and may show up in late summer at your feeders in large numbers with their fledged young. In fall and winter, goldfinches vary in their degree of seasonal movement. Some remain in an area and others may wander widely in flocks, prompting people to wonder where the goldfinches have gone. Keep feeders stocked with sunflower and thistle to increase your chances of them visiting you in winter.

Dark-eyed Junco look somewhat different in different areas of the country because there are subspecies.

7. Dark-eyed Juncos, a kind of sparrow, are nicknamed "snow birds" because they're a species who arrive at feeders, often when the snow flies, and also because their plumage of dark gray above and white belly, looks like "gray skies above and snow below." They breed in more northern and in mountainous areas of the U.S., and in Canada, but move more south and throughout the U.S. in winter. Juncos tend to winter at the same spot each year and stay in fixed flocks with a stable dominance hierarchy. The flock forages in a defined area of about 10-12 acres, but not all of the flock members always move about together, so you may see varying numbers of juncos.

Mourning Doves ice-skating

8. Mourning Doves live throughout most of the country all year. In winter, they join into flocks which can be up to 50 birds or more and feed and roost together. These flocks wander about an area as food resources change. Flocks in the northern states seem to have a higher percentage of males. The flocks may stay stable in membership through the winter. In spring, Mourning Doves will pair up and breed, defending only a small area around their nest, and will leave their nesting area to feed in a flock. Since Mourning Doves like to feed on the ground or from tray feeders, keep feeders and the ground below them shoveled of snow.

Pine Siskin

9. "Irruptive species" of winter feeder birds include, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks. These birds mainly breed in far northern areas and wander down into the U.S. in winter to feeders, when the food supply on their breeding areas is scarce. Thus, they appear some years in numbers and less so in other years.


Kevin said...

Very fascinating facts indeed (and a particularly cool shot of the White-winged Crossbills). Is there any chance (after a well-deserved break of course) that you'll be releasing a "Stokes Guide to North American Bird Behavior" at some point in the future? Such a welcome reference would be a great place for all the interesting behavioral info that couldn't make it into the Field Guide for space reasons.

Lillian Stokes said...

Thanks for the suggestion. There are projects ahead of this. Plus you can still get Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior, Volumes 1, 2, 3 from

Kevin said...

Other projects? Very exciting!

Chloe Walker said...

Love the White-breasted Nuthatch! I wish we had them! I guess our pine tree habitat isn't what they like.