Sunday, January 19, 2014

Winter Birds

I try not to feed the birds in the summer, but winter finds me filling the suet cage with fatty treats and sprinkling out some seed on the coldest of days. When temperatures were forecast to dip below 20 earlier this month, I deployed a second suet cage. Humans have disrupted the habitat so much in suburban areas that I feel that I should help them out a bit.

Pine warbler
I find that a suet cage and a cake of suet, homemade or store bought, is an inexpensive way to provide some essential nutrition for winter residents. Frankly, it provides the cats and me with a lot of enjoyment as well. I sit or stand quietly near the window and wait to see who shows up. The cats perch next to the window, following the birds as they flit back and forth.

Note: The squirrels abused my generosity last year so this year I am using suet flavored with hot pepper.

This winter bird watching is a good warm up to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count coming up February 14-17, 2014. I have a pretty good idea of what birds are in my area this time of year. Compared to two years ago, I am proud to say that I have identified more birds than before.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow birds used to be confusing to me, but I have learned that some characteristics are distinctive. The bill on goldfinches is a typical chunky, seed-crushing finch bill. The bill on warblers, however, is long and tapered, perfectly suited to plucking insects out of tight places. Now I only have to figure out the difference between the many yellow warblers! I've also realized that goldfinches are more summer residents; during the summer I can hardly spot any warblers in the leafy canopy of trees.

Here are some of the birds I’ve seen over the last month or so. There are suet feeders and there are seed feeders and of course some birds overlap those categories. Based on what birds you might want to see, take note of who eats where.

Bluejay and cardinal only eat seeds
For my money, suet attracts a great variety of birds and they stay around long enough in the feeding process that you really get to observe them.

Downy woodpecker
Red-bellied woodpecker

Suet eaters include bluebirds, warblers, wrens, titmouse (titmice), chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches.

White-breasted nuthatch

For those who like cardinals and bluejays, the seed feeder is the way to go (I use a flat feeder which cardinals love). They are not eating the suet (except for perhaps crumbs that fall down and even that I am not sure of). Birds flit in and out of the seed feeder pretty fast so trying to take a picture with a point and shoot/auto focus camera can be pretty frustrating.

Seed feeders include cardinals, bluejays, house finches, plus most of the suet feeders. And of course you have to deal with the squirrels.

House finch

Female cardinal


Finally there are the birds that won’t be coming to your feeders at all. They are eating bugs and critters that they find in the ground and leaf litter. If you want to support them, leave your leaves on the ground. Or they might be a flycatcher like the phoebe, catching bugs on the wing.

These are birds that I observed elsewhere but not at feeders: robins, hermit thrush, towhee, mourning dove (one did stop by for crumbs), phoebe, crows, and brown thrasher.

By the way, I also picked up one good photo tip along the way. Watch how the birds behave so that you can predict their next move. Chickadees get a seed and then fly away to eat it. Cardinals lean down to get a seed and then pop their head back up afterwards. Focus the camera and get ready to press the shutter for the moment the head comes back up. If you spend time watching, you'll be surprised how predictable some birds can be.

Brown-headed nuthatches love this snag on a sunny day

Once the weather warms up, and I’ve already noticed this on fine winter days, the birds will visit the feeder less often. I think they prefer natural bird food.


This titmouse enjoys a cookie for a change

Chickadee on a birdfeeder whose top is off for cleaning


  1. That durn titmouse on a cookie is adorable. :)

  2. Re the above comment that's just what I was going to say! lol

  3. Ellen, for your warbler studies, are you aware of the new release, The Warbler Book? I don't know if you want to invest that much (can't recall the exact price), but it's the best hardcopy literature out on warblers, period. And I've got them all. It's a great time to study warblers, especially since some of them won't be here past our generation.