I enjoy watching birds all year long, but there is something especially exciting about the varieties that show up around wintertime. Whether they are just taking a break before continuing their journey south or deciding to make my neck of the woods their winter home, the chance to observe different birds and the behaviors they bring with them is something I look forward to every year. I enjoygetting my backyard ready for new arrivals, and I research new locations in my region where I am likely to find some of my favorite visitors.
Why Do Birds Migrate
On the northern half of the globe, birds travel from north to south as the seasons change from hotter to colder to avoid increasingly harsh weather conditions. As birds make these epic journeys that can cover thousands of miles, they need places to rest and refuel before they continue on to their final destination. For other birds, my home (and yours!) is the final stop for the winter. While I have a relatively small window of time to observe my new seasonal friends, watching them at this time of year has allowed me to create some of my fondest birding memories. The many factors that drive migration in birds lead each species to find a winter home that offers suitable conditions for surviving the colder months. This creates a new and unique birding experience in different parts of the United States.
A majestic sandhill crane caught in mid flight.
List Of Winter Birds
Each region of the United States plays host to different birds for the coldest season, based on weather conditions and the availability of food and shelter in the leaner months of winter. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I get to see some of my Canadian friends like the graceful loon and the perpetually majestic snowy owl. It isn’t uncommon for me to catch huge flocks of elegant Canada geese — hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds strong — flying or resting in large, currently empty fields. As the weather gets colder and prey becomes scarce, I also see higher concentrations of predatory birds; I hear the cries of offended seagulls and crows as they are harassed by falcons and eagles attempting to debate the ownership of some scrap of clam, oyster, or fish. In other parts of the country, different species offer a wide variety of entertaining antics.
Winter Birds in the Southwest
- Sandhill cranes and snow geese that overwinter in parts of the southwest are eloquently described by Jay W. Sharp in his article “Looking for Birds in the Southwest” at DesertUSA.com:
“If you come to the [Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico] just after sunrise on a cold morning, you will see geese and cranes rise from the water in concert, with an operatic chorus, to head for the fields where they will feed for the day. If you come at sunset with the evening chill setting in, you will see the Snow Geese come in for crash landings in the water, where they will raft up for the night. You will see the Sandhill Cranes approach by squadrons, silhouettes against an orange sky, calling loudly, circling, then landing daintily in the shallows, where they will spend the evening gossiping about their day’s experiences.
Birds That Live Central and Midwestern United States During Winter
- Hooded Mergansers:
It is entertaining to watch these beautifully crested ducks dive for fish and other morsels. They are traditionally found near small bodies of water like ponds and streams.
- Dark-Eyed Juncos:
These fun little sparrows are the Midwest’s own visitors from Canada. Traveling in large flocks, these birds enjoy backyard feeding on berry bushes, at feeders, and with the scatter method. This latter approach is especially fun to watch as the yard gets blanketed with tiny hopping, happy, and grateful friends that are more than eager to grab a snack.
Southern United States & The Birds That Live There During Winter
- Rufous Hummingbird:
This hummingbird is known to travel from the western part of the country to spend the winter in the south, notably the Carolinas, but as far south as Florida.
- Yellow-rumped Warbler:
The distinct call of the Yellow-rumped Warbler makes this bird an auditory pleasure as well as providing for a pleasant view. Bringing their song with them from the North, these birds like to spend winters in most southern states, with concentrations in Texas and Alabama.
New England Winter Birds
- Northern Rough-winged Sparrow:
A small insectivore that looks like it gets its wings done at a discount salon, this sparrow spends the breeding season in Canada and has historically gone as far south as Mexico for the winter. Recently, however, some sparrows have decided to make states like Connecticut and Philadelphia their homes in the cold months, according to the article, “The New Birds of Winter” by Marc Devokaitis at AllAboutBirds.org.
Cooper’s Hawk: This bird of prey is typically larger in the East, and many choose to stay in New England for the winter. With small prey like rabbits, squirrels, and mice available to sustain them, the awesome hawks provide some fantastic birding opportunities.
Even these frosty berries make tasty morsels for birds in the winter.
How To Prepare Your Backyard For Winter Birds
“Birds are around us all the time, but in these colder months we get to experience a variety of species that aren’t present the rest of the year,” said Tammy VanCauteren, the Executive Director of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. “Enjoying them can be as simple as providing access to seeds and fresh water, especially in the winter. Birds need native plants for cover to help with protection from predators and bad weather and to provide prime roosting spots.”
There are many ways to encourage birds to spend time in your yard in the winter, but three of them stand out because they are often simple and inexpensive.
1. Plant native plants:
As Tammy said, native plants provide cover and shelter, but they also provide much-needed food. If you plant berry bushes, leave some for the birds to munch on for some extra energy.
2. Provide water:
Providing unfrozen, clean water is one of the best ways to attract our friends to backyards in the winter. Place the water in a space that is frequently sunny; this makes it easier for birds to spot, and helps to keep it from freezing. Check that it is clean and free of debris often, and it is best to place stones or sticks in the bowl to prevent birds from bathing or standing in freezing water.
3. Make food available:
Overwintering guests enjoy having a variety of seeds and nuts available, in addition to suet. In warmer climates, like the South, sugar feeders for hummingbirds are welcome, as well.
No matter where I am, I like to take a moment and examine the birds I observe around me. The added sense of calm that accompanies winter allows me extra insight and perspective into some nuances of my feathered friends that I miss in the more distracting, brighter and warmer months of the spring and summer. In every region of the United States, attracting birds to our homes and backyards is a great way to increase our birding opportunities, while exploring bird sanctuaries, parks, hiking trails, and other natural locations serves to expand our understanding of — and pleasure in — the interesting and exciting adventure that is found in the world of birds.