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Northeast Winter Birds: Identify Your Visitors
Living in the northeast, winter birds are a regular sight. And a regular sound, what with all their screeches, caws, and coos! When you begin to notice these birds, either through your day-to-day observation or because you’ve put out food for them, you may wonder what their names are.
Over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of fun putting out food for the birds and watching them come eat at our feeder. They’re always up to something interesting, and you never know who will show up next.
After consulting bird books, bird identification apps, and various family birders, I’ve found the names and interesting facts about each of these common northeast winter birds. I will add to the list as I discover more.
The blue jays are some of the most beautifully colored birds that visit regularly. They’re also the dorkiest to watch. Blue jays bounce around and squawk about everything, and while they like frighten other birds away, they also end up scaring themselves sometimes.
Despite their silliness, they are known to be fairly intelligent birds. They can imitate some types of hawks to scare off other birds. Since they enjoy acorns, they will often bury them for later, then go back and retrieve them.
Be aware that these guys are not particularly neat. Once everyone else has been chased away, they like to shovel birdseed out of the feeder with their beaks and make a big mess.
Even if you don’t have a feeder, they’re easy to spot. You’ll hear their loud, shrill calls, and if you look up in the trees you’ll most likely see the pretty flashes of blue darting around.
Cardinals can be very difficult to attract. They like to stay hidden in small trees and other brush. Having a feeder near a bush or tree, or just having lots of hidden areas in your backyard, is key to bringing these lovely red birds in.
Some believe that cardinals represent a sign from a loved one who has passed away. Others believe that seeing one is just a good omen in general. No matter your thoughts, they sure are beautiful!
You can spot cardinal couples in the northeast during any season. Personally, I’ve seen more in the summer than winter, but they’re much easier to spot in the winter when the males’ bright red plumage stands out!
These rotund little guys don’t show up as often, but when they do it’s always interesting. Their bellies look too big for their bodies, but they hop around somehow. They like to hang out in the rafters of our porch for some reason.
These birds are slowly making their way further north in the winter, possibly due to warming winter temperatures. They are sensitive to cold, and will often dwindle in population if they’re caught in an extra cold winter up north.
By far the most prevalent and friendly of the birds are the sweet little chickadees that flutter in to eat at feeders. They sing their happy songs and pick up food, sometimes catching it between their toes to peck at it.
Did you know that their namesake “chick-a-dee-dee-dee!” call can mean many different things depending on how many “dees” are used?
I read that they can be trained to eat out of your hand. So far I haven’t had any success, but that could be because my little cousin was next to me announcing “Birdies! She has food for you!”
Crows are always flying around and cawing in the taller trees in the backyard. They like to eat whatever they can find in our compost pile.
While they don’t show any interest in a traditional feeder, a compost pile like ours will help, but if you don’t have room you can still put out special food for them. One of my friends enjoys feeding them, and she will toss out her stale snacks, breads, and cookies for them to nibble on. From what I’ve seen, they’re not very picky, and will clean up whatever you’ve set out for them pretty quickly.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether your backyard visitor is a crow or raven. Ravens tend to be larger and seem to prefer meat.
These pretty birds will come out to eat birdseed in all kinds of weather. Even in the windiest snowstorms, they will cling to the railing of the deck and peck at whatever seeds they can find under the snow.
Dark-eyed juncos are members of the sparrow family. While all of our east coast juncos are gray and white, if you take a trip out west, you may find ones with many different colors and patterns!
Downy woodpeckers are the smallest woodpeckers in North America. They are pint-sized versions of their larger woodpecker cousins and are easily identified by their black and white speckles. Males have a red tuft on the backs of their heads.
These little guys are a treat to see at the feeder. They don’t come very often, but when they do they climb around everywhere and even hang upside down!
These guys come in droves, which are called murmurations. Sometimes there are 10-15 at once trying to pile onto our bird feeder, and when they leave they make quite a show in the sky.
Their plumage changes depending on the time of year. In summer, they are darker and sleeker. During winter, they’re a bit fluffy, and have spots like the ones you can see in the picture above.
European starlings are goofy birds, similar in many ways to blue jays. I’ve seen groups of both birds antagonizing each other before.
These guys are far from only being northeast winter birds – they’re an invasive species that has spread all over North America. We have Shakespeare enthusiasts to thank for that.
Goldfinches look much less gold in winter! They molt, which gives them this mottled brown look. Come summer, their bright yellow feathers will return in full glory.
These birds are among the tiniest ones that will visit your feeder. They’re even smaller than chickadees! You’ll often find them visiting in large groups, where despite their size they will chase away much larger birds.
The house sparrow is one of the world’s most universal birds. They can be found on nearly every continent! Naturally, they’ll frequent feeders in winter if given the chance.
You’ll often see mourning doves cooing away on telephone lines even in winter. They eat small seeds from the ground and feeders.
Purple finches pop against the snow when they visit your feeder. Don’t be fooled by the name, though – they’re far more red than purple! Only the males have this bright color.
The colorful red-bellied woodpecker can be seen at feeders during wintertime. They’re fun to watch, especially when they start scaring off starlings.
You’re probably wondering why they’re called red-bellied when all the color is clearly on their heads. Well, as you can see from the photo above, they have the tiniest bit of pinkish-red on their undercarriage. It’s rare to see that when you’re watching the feeder, though, so just look for that bright red crest on their heads!
Red-winged blackbirds are a great sight during winter, when they’re likely to enjoy the seeds and nuts you offer them. Don’t be surprised if you see one that looks like an oversized sparrow – the females look nothing like their red-and-yellow-winged mates!
These little birds have a mohawk like blue jays, but they’re gray and much, much smaller. They are in the same family as chickadees, and you can often see them eating at feeders together.
Once a tufted titmouse has found your feeder, it may take many seeds to store for later!
These silly dinosaur-looking birds are always around the house.
At night, these birds will nest high up in the trees. Sometimes they fall out! When it snows more than a few inches they’ll squawk and try to fly over the fields to get to trees on the other side, often with mixed results.
While not a typical sight at the bird feeder, I looked out the window yesterday and saw one standing on the railing next to it. He stared at me with his beady eyes and then took off.
These little birds are reminiscent of sandpipers at the beach, with their long beaks and grey and white coloring. Sometimes they try to jab the other birds with those big beaks, though.
You can tell males and females apart by their heads: a male’s cap is black, while a female’s is a lighter gray.
White-breasted nuthatches are known to flock with chickadees and titmice for safety, so you may notice them with other birds at a feeder. Nuthatches may also come to feeders repeatedly, taking seeds to stash for later in the winter rather than eating on the spot. They shove their seeds into holes in the bark, and later come to crack them open – leading to the name “nuthatch.”
I’ve seen all of these types of birds at our feeder (except for crows, who like the compost pile), after putting out Wagner’s Greatest Variety for them. If I fill the feeder in the morning, it’s usually gone by the afternoon.
Let me know how many of these northeast winter birds you’ve see in your backyard, and what you do to draw them in!
Loved this issue so educational and fun to read!