The Natural Enquirer: Feeding the birds
Many people feed the birds in the winter. In fact, many feed them all year long. Most feeder birds are relatively easy to identify; some, however, can be a bit tricky. The birds covered here are only the most common and likely to be visitors to your feeders. That being said, it is quite unlikely that you will see all of them in a given year.
We have two general groups of birds using our feeders in winter, the permanent residents, i.e. Black Capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers, and the winter visitors, i.e. Pine Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins.
First we will look at winter finches. They commonly include Goldfinches, Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks. Finches typically have heavy conical (cone shaped) beaks, except for the Siskin, which has a more slender all-purpose beak, it is brownish and boldly striped all over, and may show some yellow in the wings and tail. It is our smallest winter finch.
The Goldfinch is slightly larger, has dark wings with a white or beige wing bar, and no body striping. The Redpoll is the same size as the Goldfinch, about 5 inches long, is heavily striped like the Siskin, but has a red cap and a black bib. In winter, there is not a lot of sexual differences between the male and female of these three.
The next largest is the purple finch at 51/2 to 6 inches, and the males and females differ considerably. The female and the young of the year are heavily stripped, and you should look for a dark jaw stripe and a dark ear patch. The male has little or no striping, and is a pleasant raspberry red color.
The last two winter finches we will cover are the Evening and the Pine Grosbeak. The Evening male is about 8 inches long, a yellowish gray color with black and white wings and a black tail. It has a dark head with a beautiful yellow forehead and over the eyes. The female is a dull non-descript yellow-gray, with black and white wings, it sort of suggests a large Goldfinch.
The Pine Grosbeak male is a large 8 to 10 inch rosy red bird with dark wings having two wing bars. The female is gray-green with dark wings, both have rather long tails that are notched as in all the finches.
I won’t go into detail on the Black Capped Chickadee, our most common year-round resident; however, if you live near a bog, keep your eye out for a chickadee with a brown cap and brown on the body, as we also have the Boreal Chickadee.
The White and Red Breasted Nuthatches are next. The white breasted, the larger of the two has a white breast, the cap, black (in the male) or gray (the female) ends above the black eye and there is no eye stripe. The Red Breasted is about one half the size, has a reddish breast and an obvious eye stripe. Both have gray backs and are usually seen coming down the tree trunk. I would be remiss if left out the Brown Creeper, not a real common feeder bird, but it hangs out with the chickadees. Look for a small, well camouflaged, striped brownish bird with a long tail held tight against the tree trunk, and a white eye stripe. It is usually seen searching the tree for insects, insect eggs or the grubs. You will have to look carefully for this one, it will be climbing up the tree.
The two common woodpeckers found at winter feeders are the Downy and the Hairy. Their plumage is almost identical, with the Hairy half as large as the Downy, easy if they are seen together. If you see only one, compare the beak length with the diameter of the head. The Downy beak is about half the diameter, while the Hairy’s is about the same diameter.
We have both Crows and Ravens in the Northwoods, and while the crow is a common bird at feeders, the Raven rarely comes in. The Raven has a noticeably heaver beak and a “ruff” about the neck. In flight, the crow will show a wedge shaped tail, while the Raven’s is rounded. Two more members of the Crow family include the Jays, the Blue and the Gray. The Blue Jay is so common I won’t describe it, as we all should be familiar with it. The Gray is not nearly as common, it is gray on the back with a white cap, throat and forehead, and black on the back of the head. They make the most interesting sounds, and their flight is best described as soft. One bird you may confuse with the Gray Jay would be the Northern Shrike. It has a black mask, black wings and tail and a faintly barred breast. This is a very aggressive bird of prey, with a hawk-like beak that visits your feeder only to kill and consume the birds found there.
We occasionally have a Mourning Dove that over winters in the Northwoods. Nothing really resembles them, and they are almost always found feeding on the ground.
Enjoy and good birding!
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to [email protected].