Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, February 8, 2016

Winter is the Best Time for Backyard Birding

Watching birds is one of my favorite ways to spend time outdoors during the winter months. When the trees stand stark and the temperatures drop, studying birds is much easier. I no longer have to search out the birds to view their behavior, they come to me. Winter is certainly the hottest time for birding action in our garden.

Tufted Titmouse

Once the insects have withdrawn for the winter. After the fruits and berries have been devoured from the trees and shrubs. When the seeds from native perennials, grasses and forbs are scarce, birds flock to the feeders.


Winter, especially February, can be a harsh time for birds. Supplementing wild food sources with backyard bird feeders will bring these special visitors closer to your home and may help them survive the harshest season.

Ruby-crowned kinglet
Offering several styles of feeders, each with a different type of seed, berry or fruit will attract a larger variety of birds. Project Feeder Watch has assembled a helpful list of common feeder birds by region and what they like to eat. 

Northern Cardinal (female) and White-throated Sparrow

Early morning conversations at the feeders provide, not only great photo opportunities, but loads of entertainment. Song birds are especially busy in the early hours, filling up with high energy seeds after an arctic night. Birds store energy as fat and can only stock 16 to 24 hours of energy at a time. This is why early mornings and just before dark are the busiest feeding times. Often, birds have to wait patiently in line for a turn at the bustling buffet.

Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow

And then there are some birds, like the red-bellied woodpecker, who just fly in and take command.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Winter is an excellent time to observe birds that don't normally frequent backyard feeders. I've noticed that bluebirds become braver and find the gusto to dash in and mingle with other song birds when temperatures are frigid.

Eastern Bluebird

You can learn more about the special feeding needs of bluebirds in winter here.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

Robins are a common sight on lawns tugging at earthworms, but have you ever seen one visiting your feeder? Surprisingly, they are attracted to several different feeders including suet and hulled sunflower seeds. Try putting up a fruit or meal worm station and see if they come.

American Robin

Some birds will collect seeds during summer and fall hiding them for times when food is more limited. I often observe woodpeckers caching sunflower seeds in tree cavities. They can only hope that other birds or animals don't find their stash.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Birds have extremely high metabolisms, and cold weather increases their caloric needs. The body temperature of birds, which ranges from 104 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, determines how high their metabolism is. In winter, birds need to produce more heat to stay warm.

Eastern Bluebird (female)

Some birds, such as the Carolina Chickadee, will go into nocturnal torpor, which lowers their body temperature, heart rate and breathing to conserve energy. This practice can save as much as 20% of their energy.

Carolina Chickadee

Some song birds wear a much different coat in winter, than during breeding season, making them much less flashy. Take the American Goldfinch, who dresses down for winter in a drab olive cloak. A stark contrast to his bright canary yellow in summer.

American Goldfinch

Like mammals, some birds will grow more feathers for winter to keep warm. The American Goldfinch has 1,000 more feathers in winter than summer. Smart bird!


Birds use their feathers to stay warm. You may observe birds perched on tree limbs, fences or in shrubs looking plump and pudgy. By puffing up their feathers, they trap in air allowing their body heat to warm up the air between their feathers and body, providing an additional layer of insulation against the cold.

Dove

Birds will also sleep with their bill under their wing feathers to breathe in the warm air.

Hairy Woodpecker

Constant shivering increases their body temperature (thermogenosis). This produces heat at 5 times their normal rate.

Hermit Thrush

Now, you may be wondering about their exposed feet. Birds' feet are bones covered in a rough skin, which unlike humans' feet, contains very little water. The blood vessels in their legs are also designed to keep their feet warm. Arteries keep warm blood flowing from the heart down to their legs.

Pine Warbler

Dehydration is actually a bigger threat to birds than starvation in winter. Providing a heated bird bath will attract lots of birds to your garden when fewer non-frozen water sources exist. In addition to drinking, water is needed for preening feathers. Without proper preening, feathers won't stay in position and aligned, causing gaps where heat can escape, thus lowering the birds body temperature.

American Robin

Backyard birders and feeder watchers like me can help document the diversity of birds in your area this weekend (February 12-15, 2016) by participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen-science project helps document birds in rural, urban and natural areas. For more information on this engaging and educational event click here.

Downy Woodpecker
With a little effort you can attract a diverse group of birds to your garden when little else is happening. Simply meeting birds' food, water and shelter needs can make winter your top birding season too.

20 comments:

  1. Looking forward to the weekend. The Great Backyard Bird Count is one of my favorite citizen science projects.

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    1. It really is a good one since it is easy for everyone to participate. I like counting at different locations, preferably one natural and one residential to compare.

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  2. Great article and photographs! I always learn from your articles. As I was reading this I was also looking at the birds in my new window feeder. It is fun to be able to watch them so close up!

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    1. Great that you are enjoying your window feeder. It encouraged me to put up a suet feeder outside my kitchen window so I can also enjoy them from the warmth of inside, especially these cold days we've had this week.

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  3. Beautiful photos, Karin, and your post is so informative. I do notice that the feeders are always extra busy in the mornings. I've also noticed that they seem to get busy after or even during a snowstorm. And I didn't realize that some birds changed colour in the winter - that's amazing!

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    1. So true Margaret. Birds are nature's weather forecaster.

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  4. You got a lot of great pictures! Adorable pictures too, in addition to being beautiful. You've reminded me that I need to get a heated water bath. I had one when we lived in PA and the birds visited it all of the time.

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    1. When we moved to Georgia, I never thought we would need a heated bird bath either. But we certainly get enough freezing nights and sometimes days that it is worth the investment and the birds definitely appreciate it.

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  5. You did get a nice selection of birds. Your count should get good numbers. Helpful tips too.

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    1. The colder it is the more birds we see at the feeders but I think we should have good numbers either way. I hunt for the more birds that are not as commonly seen in our garden. It's always fun to see new visitors!

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  6. Sweet photos! You are lucky to have Hermit Thrushes in the winter. Most of the others you show are common in my garden in winter, too. For some reason, however, the Great Backyard Bird Count tends to occur during the quietest birding time in my garden. (It's often one of the coldest weekends here, too.) Hopefully, a sizable group will show up to make the count worthwhile. Love the Titmouse! Your photos are great!

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    1. Thanks Beth! The birds flock to our feeders when it is cold but sometimes when it is so cold they just hunker down. I hope you get good number this weekend. It'll be fun!

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  7. Great catch of the Kinglet. I have seen them now and then, but we've never been able to get a photo. They're fast little buggers. Didn't realize the pine warbler looked so much like a goldfinch. Not likely to see them here as there are few pines.

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    1. The pine warblers are much easier to identify in winter since they keep their bright yellow and the goldfinches are more olive. In summer I always look at their beak. I was lucky capturing the kinglet as it happened to appear in the shrub in front of me. They are nervous little birds.

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  8. Your posts have such great information Karin! I know I have said this before, but I have to say it again- I always learn something. I had no idea birds stashed seeds, although I have noticed that Bluejays hide the peanuts I sometimes put out. I always wondered about the habit of a bird tucking its beak and fluffing its feathers. Now I know why.
    It is super cold here (-18). I honestly don't know how birds do it even with all the clever measures they take to deal with the cold.

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    1. Thank you Jennifer! I'm so glad that my posts have been informative. Brrr...that is cold. I am sure many birds are hunkered down & puffed up to stay warm in your garden.

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  9. Great post! You have some good birding in your back yard! I am very excited because it seems that a bluebird couple have chosen the new birdhouse only steps from the large glass doors into my kitchen. I will be able to sit at the table and watch them!

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    1. That is awesome! We had a couple in a house in view from our back deck one year. I was worried there would be too much activity in that part of the garden for them but they adjusted. Enjoy your bluebirds and get lots of great photos!

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  10. There are not many visitors in winter here, but we do see them on our walk some! You are so lucky to get such a variety in winter.

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    1. The birding activity gets me through the winter when it is otherwise so quiet. The woodpeckers are especially entertaining with all their banging and movement up and down the tree trunks.

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