Winter Backyard Birds

Winter Feeder Frenzy

Story and Photos by Donna Traylor

If our late-fall feathered friends are any indication of the upcoming winter, it might be a good idea to put an extra log on the fire and stock up on the hot chocolate - it could be a long one! People have all kinds of special indicators to clue them in on the changing seasons, especially winter, like thickness of onion skins or stripes on a wooly bear caterpillar. I check out the birds at my feeders and their arrival dates. Some avian species are considered "irruptive"­birds that are normally found north of New Jersey except in those years when cold temperatures and lack of food force them into our warmer climes. These cycles, which occur every five-or-so years, are a delight for Jersey birders. Let's take a look at those feeder birds starting to make their winter appearances.

House and purple finches

Red- breasted nuthatch

Pine siskins
Evening grosbeak
Common redpoll

White winged crossbill

Black-capped chickadee

White-throated sparrow

Although the house finch has become a common feeder bird, and a year round New Jersey resident, it's cousin, the purple finch, breeds only in the most northern reaches of the state, and is an uncommon sight during the winter months. When comparing finches at the feeder, take note that the purple (male) finch is actually a cranberry color, contrasting with much redder hues on the house finch. Remember that it is the males in the bird world that have most of the color. Drabber females blend in better with their habitat allowing for safer nesting. The female purple finch has a heavy white to cream colored eyestripe, absent in the house finch.

The white breasted nuthatch is evident year round. However, the red-breasted, again a cousin, is more common during the winter months. Red-breasteds are much smaller, have a heavy eyestripe and a red breast. They behave a lot like chickadees, stopping quickly at a sunflower feeder, plucking one seed, and darting away to a safe perch to eat.

Some of the more unusual winter visitors include pine siskins, evening grosbeaks and red and white-winged crossbills. The grosbeaks and crossbills are difficult to mistake. Evening grosbeaks resemble a grownup goldfinch with even bolder color patterns of white, yellow and black. They are about the size of a cardinal, with huge, cone-shaped bills that allow them to crack even wild cherry pits! Needless to say, they are voracious seed eaters­an average flock of 20 birds will quickly empty your feeders.

When the evening grosbeaks come in, keep your eyes open for pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, white-winged and red crossbills, purple finches, pine grosbeaks and common redpolls; they usually travel south together. Crossbills are about the size of a finch and are named for their distinctive crossed bills. There are two species - red crossbills and white-winged crossbills ­ and their names call out their identifying markings. They feed on the seeds of various pine cones. So keep your eyes up when there's a bumper crop of cones, and maybe you'll have a crossbill treat. They usually travel in large, noisy flocks which make them easy to find. Pine siskins resemble American goldfinch in size and behavior. They have pointy bills unlike most of the other winter species already discussed. They are predominantly brownish striped with yellow at the base of the tail and in flight feathers which flashes almost golden in good sunlight. They travel in flocks and love thistle or niger seed, so will often be found at feeders with goldfinches who prefer the same fare.

Less common, but always a treat, is the pine grosbeak. This large bird (an inch bigger than the evening grosbeak) is house finch red with a black stubby bill. Two white wing bars compliment both the male and female. They are more wary than most of the other winter irruptive species and not often found at feeders. Also unusual, but easier to spot than the pine grosbeak, is the common redpoll. Only about 5" tall, it sports a red cap (or poll), and a black chin. The bill is pointy like a pine siskin's and bright yellow. Although it can be enticed to a sunflower seed feeder, you can also find redpolls feeding on the catkins of birch and alder trees. These birds may travel in flocks numbering in the hundreds!

The aforementioned birds all have distinctive field marks or habitats that give even a novice birder a relatively easy time of identifying them at backyard feeders. However, there are other winter visitors that frequent yards, but are more or less ground feeders. Enticing these species requires either sprinkling seed on the ground or on a platform feeder a few inches above ground level. Beside northern cardinals bringing winter pleasure, other winter sparrows can be found hopping around the ground. Specialties include the white-throated sparrow, the white-crowned sparrow and the fox sparrow. Although they may be lumped into the common category of brown birds, they all have rather easy identifying marks for the backyard birder. They are all about the same size - 6 3/4" to 7", and they all have varying amounts of brown on them. However, the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows are just that. The white-throated has a conspicuous white throat in both male and female birds. The white crowned has a distinct white head with alternating black and white stripes above and below the eye. And its pink bill stands out. These two are similar but easily discernible species. The fox sparrow, on the other hand, can be highly variable in plumage. Most often, the body is a deep chocolate brown and gray with a reddish brown tail and rump and heavily striped breast. Although it is the same size as the white-crowned sparrow, it always appears like it is a heavier bird.

The pleasure of watching birds in an irruptive winter finch year is not only a learning experience but a real treat when one considers how infrequently they visit our state in large numbers. You don't need to spend lots of money or be an expert to attract these species to your yard. Black oil sunflower seed is a favorite for most of the species mentioned in this article; niger seed for siskins will provide a good supplement. Simple platform feeders of wire mesh and wood will keep sparrows, grosbeaks and cardinals happy. Inexpensive bottle or tube feeders will dispense sunflower seeds. Keep in mind that sunflower seed is also an enticement for hungry black bears, who are not true hibernators. Bring seed in at night until the weather turns, and stays cold enough to coax bears into hibernation. Seed may be left out overnight except during those January thaws when the bears will stir and come looking for a mid-winter snack. Other animals may also participate in your breakfast bar - squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks and other mammals still active during winter. Keep feeders clean so that birds remain healthy. Once you begin winter feeding, keep it up until natural food is again available. And keep your eyes out for wintering hawks that may stake a claim to small birds feeding in your yard. They are part of nature's process and can provide captivating watching as they streak through the yard scattering feeding birds in all directions. On very rare occasions, a special northern owl, such as a snowy owl, may delight northern New Jersey birders as it strays far from it's normal Arctic haunts. Birding hotlines can keep you updated as to the dispersion of winter species in your neck of the woods; in northern New Jersey call 908-766-2661

Always keep looking for the unusual; you may be surprised at how common it is this winter!

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Joseph Lyons
10 May 2014, 16:19
recently seen in Stillwater, NJ. Ruby throated Grosbeak, ast feeded. at one point 5 males
Julie williams
07 May 2011, 15:23
I saw a large bird, about the size of a robin with a shape like a pine grosbeak. This bird was all red, a tomato red as opposed to the bluish red of a cardinal. There were very pale gray streaks on wings. It had a conical beak and a round head, almost like a parrot. Birder friends thought it was a grosbeak, but this bird was totally red including the beak. There was a bit of black around the eyes. It was feeding on the ground below the bird feeder. I did not see it in flight. \r\nI live in Northern NJ in a wooded area bordering a brook and forest.\r\nHope you can help!\r\nJulie
27 Dec 2010, 10:55
Mitzie and Marie might have brown creepers. The somewhat hooked bill is the clue.\r\nColor can range from quite a nice brown to a grayish brown. Typical behavior consisits of creeping up and down tree trunks searching for insects.
27 Dec 2010, 10:53
Mitzie and Marie might have a brown creeper. The somewhat hooked bill is the clue. Color can vary from quite a petty brown to grayish.
pati giunta
05 Aug 2010, 14:28
I have seen three times this summer a bird that I have never seen before.\r\nWhen I see it it is perchedon a branch above a small pond.\r\nIt has bright yellow legs and feet. It's primary color is a darkish grey.\r\nA somewhat larger bird with head shape very similar to a pielated woodpecker sillowett. HELP in identifing!!!\r\nThanks
20 Jun 2010, 05:41
I live in a condo in Florham Park. Last Sept. a Great Blue Heron swooped out of the woods and perched on my garage. It just stood there for a good 20 mins. I sent my son in to get my camera and we got gorgeous pictures.
30 May 2009, 15:44
is it illgal to keep a finch in new jersey. i found one and it is hurt. i got food,cage,ect. but my friends said you cant keep finches because it is illgal.
06 Feb 2009, 08:21
I just wanted to let you know I live in hewitt, NJ.I have been feeding about 500 to 1,000 yellow and purple finches daily for the past 3 months, using 12 2' long sock feeders filled with Niger seed. I go thru 15-20 pounds a week along with 100 lbs of black oil sunflower. It the most wonderful sight to see them everyday. One day last week during snow, while filling the feeders I had some seed in my palm when 2 finches flew into my palm and started eating for 5 minutes till my arm got tired.
31 Jan 2009, 08:11
Visited by a male Baltimore Oriole last Sunday. Surprised and delighted me!
21 Jan 2009, 07:04
I also have a reddish brown bird, about the size of a sparrow with a very short tail, and a long curved beak, who comes and eats the peanut butter we have out for our birds and squirrles. It dosen't seem to afraid of humans, and is really a beautiful mahogany color. I am unable to find the bird on any of the website listings.
02 Jan 2009, 10:22
hi! good information about the birds and the pictures are very cool!
19 Dec 2008, 11:42
Hi! I have a brown bird that almost looks like a sparrow (size & color) but has a long bill which hooks slighly down and a short upright tail like a wren. Any ideas? It seems to be alone and I haven't seen any others. Would love to know what she/he is. Also I have a Flicker that is still grounding feeding for ants..any ideas what to feed him that is available? Thank you Marie
25 Nov 2008, 08:03
Looks like good information. I'm off to the Backyard Birds and More store to beg for goodie bag inserts for the MG symposium in February. Gonna check out their stuff. You are SUCH an easy buy this year. Maybe some bird treats and ear plugs. Happy short week. H
holly berry
07 Jul 2008, 11:36
A water logged baby bird recently found its way into my back yard and Im not quite sure what it is. It is primarily brownish grey and is about the same size as a sparrow(it is a baby so im not sure if it grows larger.) Its tail is rounded and is bright yellow and black. Im stumped! Any help that can be offered would be greatly appreciated.
29 Apr 2008, 06:53
Sounds like a northern flicker which is a woodpecker.
28 Apr 2008, 16:03
I saw a bird with a red "Y" on the back of its neck and a black "U" marking under its beek, The bird had the shape of a Blue jay with speckles on its wings sort of coco colored. what birs is this?\r\nThanks,\r\nKevin
kim mullins-mitchell
16 Mar 2008, 09:58
We just saw a strange bird in our backyard. (we live in Hunterdon County)It was about the size of a robin(maybe a pinch bigger), with a reddish brown chest, but all other feathers were pure white. It sort of looked like a dove, but not sure. Do you have any ideas as to what this unusual bird could be?

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