Some folks head south for the winter and are known as snow birds. Lots of birds do the same thing. They won’t be back until spring. Some other snow birds come down from farther north to spend the winter with us, and a few of them are welcome additions to our bird feeder flocks. Just like the southern snow birds, they’ll head back north in the spring.
Probably the most common winter visitor to our feeding stations are the little dark gray-and-white dark-eyed juncoes. They love small seeds like millet, spread on the ground or a flat tray, but will also feed on oil-seed sunflowers like many of our other winter bird friends. They are silent most of the time they’re with us, but a few may start to twitter their spring song just before they depart back north to the pine woods.
Another occasional visitor, especially if you have pine trees nearby, is the little, tame, red-breasted nuthatch. They’re smaller than their local cousins, the white-breasted nuthatches that are with us year round. Their breasts aren’t really red, but they are tinted with red to a greater extent than our local nuthatches. They love sunflower seeds and will eat suet. They sometimes zip in to grab a seed only a few feet from people filling the feeders. They frequently utter a high, nasal chirp.
A few folks may attract wintering sparrows; not resident house sparrows, but real sparrows like Harris sparrows, white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, tree sparrows, song sparrows and even an occasional fox sparrow. Wintering sparrows like small seeds like millet, spread on the ground or flat platforms. They’re more likely to visit if there are thickets and tall stands of weeds nearby. Like most birds, they don’t really get tuned up to sing until spring is in the air, but a mixed flock of sparrows can add a delightful chatter of chirps and whistles on an otherwise quiet winter day.
Most feeding stations will have a flock of house finches nearly year round. Be watching closely in winter, though. A more heavily streaked brown finch of similar size with distinctive facial markings is likely to be a female purple finch. Male house finches will continue to gain a deeper blush of red color on their breasts and faces as the winter progresses, but their backs and crowns will always be brown. The male purple finch is a more intense raspberry red all over. Many of us enjoy goldfinches in winter, too. They may have lost their bright summer plumage, but they’re still a delight to have around. They love oil-seed sunflower and love it even more if it’s already shelled out and cracked finer. Some folks mix that with little black niger seeds. Be watching your winter goldfinch flock for similar sized birds (smaller than house finches) that are all streaked with brown. Those will be pine siskins.
Some winters bring really rare sightings of things like evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, crossbills, spotted towhees and tiny little redpolls. Watch those feeders for the real snowbirds that come down to cheer us up until our spring bird friends return. Careful observers sometimes detect even more unusual birds.
Steve Lewka is a former director of Story County Conservation.