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Watching Birds in Winter

Blue Jay

This time of year, the quick movements and flashes of color from birds really add interest to a landscape that is otherwise sullen and grey.  And, without deciduous leaves to hide them, they’re much easier to spot.  Become a backyard birder by learning to identify the birds you’re most likely to see, how to attract more, record your sightings and report bird counts for the sake of science.

Common Winter Birds

  • Blue Jay: With a distinctive call and bright blue plumage, this is one of the most easily recognizable birds.
  • Cardinal: Another easy one, especially the males who wear bright red feathers.  The females are less showy with tawny plumage, but sport the same body shape and tufted head feathers.
Downy Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker: While there are many woodpeckers in the area, this is the most common and the smallest.  It has black and white stripes on its wings and a red cap on its head.
  • Black-Capped Chickadee: A small bird with a black cap of feathers on the top of its head and a black chin.  Its singular call sounds like it’s saying: “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”
  • Tufted Titmouse: It looks like a small, grey cardinal with its tufted head feathers.  It has a white belly and a black spot above its beak.
European Starling
  • European Starling: Bad news if you see them at your feeder since they often travel in large flocks and thuggishly displace other birds at the feeder.  They have a yellow bill and dark brown/black textured plumage.
  • Dark-Eyed Junco: Dove-grey with a white belly.  They prefer to eat on the ground, often going after fallen seeds from a feeder.
  • House Sparrow (English Sparrow): Extremely common around man-made areas, you’ll often see them foraging for food in concrete jungles, but you’ll never see them in wild, natural areas.  Small with a striped brown back and lighter-colored belly.
  • House Finch: Another small bird that has adapted well to human activity.  It’s stripy brown with a blush of red on its breast and head.
  • American Goldfinch: Unmistakable when you see a male in summer with bright yellow body and black wings and head.  They’re a little more subdued in winter when males take on the tawny body color of females.  If you put out a finch feeder, they will come.
Red Tailed Hawk
  • Red Tailed Hawk: The area’s most common hawk, you’ll often see them sitting on light poles over the highway.  Though the tail is always a reddish-brown, the rest of the plumage can differ between birds, from all brown, to brown on top with a pale, streaked belly.

Though rare, spotting a bald eagle is not out of the question (I’ve seen two this winter!), so look for the characteristic white head when you see a large bird flying overhead.

Feed Those Birds!
The easiest way to watch for birds for winter is to put out a feeder.  Birds that hang around in winter need to use a lot of energy to keep warm.  This energy comes from diets high in fat.  However, with the decrease in native plants, the berries and seeds winter birds eat are less plentiful than they used to be.  So, supplemental food from feeders, especially suet which is high in fat, is appreciated.  You’ll probably notice even more activity on cold, snowy days.

Provide Water
Water can be even harder for birds to find in winter than food.  A birdbath or dish with a heater is preferable when temperatures dip below freezing.  Make sure birds have a place to perch by placing a few stones in it and clean and disinfect it every two weeks.

Black-Capped Chickadee

Use an App
While there are many bird tracking and ID apps, my favorite is Audubon Birds.  It’s free, simple to use and filled with tons of useful information.  It allows you to easily identify birds based on your location.  You can narrow down choices with parameters such as size, color, tail shape and more.  You can then log your sightings and add photos, notes and location.  The app is also just a great place to learn.  You can see recent news articles, read information about hundreds of birds, hear bird calls (many different ones for each bird) and see hotspots where others have posted sightings.

Citizen Science
Projects that use crowdsourcing to count and track birds provide valuable information for conservation and research efforts.  There are many avenues for reporting data, including an app (eBird) and a project to tally birds that visit feeders in winter (Project FeederWatch), but most of them have something to do with the Cornell Ornithology Lab.  Click here to learn more.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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