As fall approaches, and we begin to see a decline in the amount of Hummingbirds and Orioles visiting our feeders, it begs the question: what birds will be sticking around as the seasons change and winter arrives?
Here are just some of the birds you can expect to see at your feeders even when the snow begins to fall.
American robins are among the most familiar feathered neighbors to visit yards and gardens. Our largest thrush is also unquestionably our most successful, breeding from Berkshire to Nantucket and everywhere in between. Overall, the number of robins in Massachusetts has increased greatly throughout this century. Suburban landscapes are very beneficial to robins, as both ornamental plantings and open green lawns provide an abundance of feeding and nesting habitat.
Identification: Both males and females are grey above and orange to brick-red below, and are of medium size (about 10” long). Their bills are yellow, and when a robin flies, it shows two small white tips at the corners of its dark tail. Very young robins will show a speckled breast rather than the adult red.
Behaviro: Robins do most of their feeding and foraging on the ground, where they will run or hop for several short steps and then often assume an erect posture, always on the lookout for possible danger. During winter and migration especially, robins often travel in flocks, so it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more birds foraging on the same lawn or perching in the same tree.
Robins in Winter: Many backyard birders are surprised to see this herald of spring hopping about in the depths of winter. Although many of our robins do migrate (hence the species name migratorius), an increasing number of these red-breasted songsters are passing the winter in Massachusetts each year.
This bird’s distinctive sunshine-yellow feathers fade in winter to an understated palette of gray, brown, and buff. These diminutive finches are common visitors to bird feeders across the state, and so the well-prepared birder should be familiar with their varied plumages.
Identification: Regardless of season, several traits about goldfinches remain constant. American goldfinches are small (5”), seed-eating birds with short, pointed, conical bills and wings that are noticeably darker than their bodies.
In spring and summer, the male is canary-yellow with coal black wings, tail, and cap. The female lacks the cap and is colored in more subdued shades of butter yellow and olive.
In winter, the male retains some yellow around the face, throat, and shoulder, but both sexes are primarily grayish-brown. Identify them by their size, shape, and dark wings, which often show one or two clear “wing-bars.”
Behavior: Goldfinches often travel in flocks, and they have a recognizable “bouncing” style of flight, resulting from their tendency to hold their wings tight against their body for a second or two between bouts of flapping.
Particularly during winter, multiple males and females often feed together at a single feeder. We recommend filling your finch feeders with either straight Thistle or Feathered Friend Finch Delight for these little birds.
American Tree Sparrow
These fairly large, handsome sparrows breed in the high tundra of the Canadian north, but when winter comes they flock eagerly to weedy fields and backyard feeders across Massachusetts. Sometimes known as “winter chippies” for their resemblance to overgrown chipping sparrows, American tree sparrows are active and sociable.
Identification: American tree sparrows are large-bodied and long-tailed, which makes them look a little larger than most other sparrows that visit feeders. Their backs are reddish brown with plenty of streaking along the edges of their feathers, but the best field marks for this species are the cap and the chest. American tree sparrows have a bright chestnut cap, as well as a matching chestnut line through the eye. Their plain breasts have no streaks but often show a small smudge or spot in the center.
Behavior: Contrary to their name, American tree sparrows do much of their feeding on the ground, where they hop about looking for seeds. When waiting their turn at the feeder or fleeing from predators, American tree sparrows will perch in trees or low shrubs. They will often flutter to the feeder and flap their wings vigorously, trying to knock seeds to the ground. We recommend filling a platform feeder with Feathered Friend High Energy Fruit & Nut food, or Mealworms.
The humble chickadee is a hardy bird, remaining sprightly and active even in the depths of a New England winter. The Massachusetts state bird, chickadees can be found in all corners of the Commonwealth wherever there are at least a few trees. Their vocal natures and acrobatic antics make them pleasant and interesting little neighbors.
Identification: Black-capped chickadees are small (just over five inches) and often appear large-headed and somewhat “fluffy.” Their black caps and throats make a stark contrast with their white cheeks, forming a distinctive pattern.
Chickadees are gray above and white to pale brown below; black-capped chickadees often show a significant amount of white on their otherwise gray wings.
The bird gets its name from its call, given in all seasons, a rapid chickadee-dee-dee-dee.
Behavior: Black-capped chickadees flock together and with other birds (especially nuthatches, titmice, and downy woodpeckers) throughout the winter months.
When feeding, chickadees are curious and active, taking advantage of their strong feet and small size to crawl to the very edges of twigs, sometimes hanging upside down to pick at a promising morsel. Fill your feeders with Feathered Friend Chickadee’s Choice to attract more of our state bird to your yard this winter.
Bringers of happiness in all seasons, eastern bluebirds are small members of the thrush family that inhabit fields and clearings throughout Massachusetts. Bluebirds were once rare in Massachusetts during the winter, but in recent years the number of winter bluebirds has been climbing.
Identification: Eastern bluebirds are easy to identify thanks to their bright blue backs and brick-red breasts. Some females may be rather subdued in coloration, to the point where their backs are blue-gray and their breasts only faintly rusty, but the pattern of colors remains the same. Bluebirds are smaller than blue jays, and they lack the pointed crests, black collars, and extensive white on the wings and tail that blue jays show.
Behavior: In spring and summer, bluebirds nest in holes, either in trees or in birdhouses put up for their use. They mostly forage for insects on the ground, so feeding mealworms in a platform feeder is a great way to attract them. As the weather gets colder, many bluebirds flock together for migration. Those that remain in Massachusetts dine primarily on soft fruits, and a pair of bluebirds may remain on or near their breeding territory all through the winter.
As the name suggests, European starlings are introduced birds from across the sea. Originally released in 1908 in New York City’s Central Park in an attempt to establish every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to the New World, starlings have spread like wildfire. Now common and well established in all corners of our Commonwealth, it looks like starlings are here to stay.
Identification: At more than eight inches from bill to tail tip, starlings are noticeably larger than sparrows but don’t quite measure up to robins or blue jays. Starlings have short, stubby tails, and their fairly long, straight bills are banana yellow during the breeding season and gray-black at other times of the year. Adult European starlings show glossy black plumage with numerous light spangles during the winter, but these wear off by the time breeding begins, and the iridescent black feathers reflect shades of green and violet. Juvenile starlings are a uniform drab brown—identify them by shape or voice.
Behavior: Starlings are exceptionally gregarious, flocking (often in great numbers) at all times of the year. These flocks are often noisy, making a range of chatters, rasps, whistles, clatters, and clicking noises. When feeding, starlings often rove across the ground with determined steps, using their long, strong bills to probe and pry at the soil for invertebrate prey. They will also consume seeds, so we recommend filling a feeder with Feathered Friend Black Oil Sunflower, in addition to having a platform feeder with mealworms.
Northern cardinals bring splashes of vivid color to the grays and browns of a winter garden. Cardinals are year-round residents in Massachusetts, and they use their bright, powerful beaks to crack open stubborn seeds and to slice open sugary fruits to help them survive the coldest months of the year. Come spring, their cheerful caroling can be heard in almost every neighborhood and farm.
Identification: The male northern cardinal is unmistakable, thanks to his rose-red plumage, pointed crest, and black mask. The female cardinal has a more subdued fashion sense, preferring pale tan and brown with a few rosy accents on the crest, wing, and tail. Both sexes have the same heavy, bright orange bill.
Behavior: Cardinals often retain the same mate from one season to another, with males and females remaining together during the winter months. Despite this pair bonding, though, cardinals are not terribly social birds and rarely form flocks, even during the winter when many other birds do. Rather than walking, cardinals hop, whether on the ground or from branch to branch, and they eat a mixture of insects, plant buds, seeds, and fruits. It is best to have a feeder with a large perch that is filled with Feathered Friend Cardinal’s Choice to attract these brightly colored birds.
These accomplished mimics are year-round residents in Massachusetts. Their loud, complex song creations can be heard in many a neighborhood and garden in spring and summer, but come winter mockingbirds adopt a lower profile. Sheltering in thick tangles and foraging for berries and other soft fruits, northern mockingbirds are quieter but still present throughout the colder months.
Identification: Mockingbirds have slender bodies, long tails, and short, straight bills. Bill to tail tip, an average individual measures 10”.
Northern mockingbirds are mostly an unremarkable gray, with pale breasts and stomachs and dark wings. When a mockingbird flies, it reveals bright white patterns on the wings and tail that serve as excellent field marks.
A northern mockingbird’s “song,” often delivered from a branch tip, rooftop, fencepost, or other conspicuous perch, is composed of phrases mimicked from other birds, each repeated several times in quick succession. Other noises, like car alarms and cell phone rings, are also mimicked occasionally. A mockingbird with a large and diverse repertoire stands a better chance of impressing a mate.
Behavior: During the breeding season, northern mockingbirds are easy to see, whether singing from a prominent perch or pugnaciously chasing off rivals and competitors. Mockingbirds hunting insects will run along the ground, occasionally pausing and half-raising their boldly patterned wings in an effort to startle insects into flight.
In the winter, mockingbirds often perch in evergreen shrubs or thick tangles that afford some protection from harsh weather, and their diet shifts to being dominated by berries and fruit. Filling feeders with Feathered Friend High Energy Fruit & Nut is the best way to attract Mockingbirds.
Like miniature cardinals cloaked in pale gray, tufted titmice often keep company with their cousins the chickadees when foraging for seeds. Although their mousy plumage and big black eyes might suggest that they are furtive, scurrying creatures, quite the opposite is true. Tufted titmice are bold as brass, harassing intruders in their territory with their harsh scold calls and even stealing tufts of fur from sleeping mammals to use in lining their nests!
Identification: From the neck down, tufted titmice look very similar to black-capped chickadees: pale gray above and white below, with rusty flanks. Their heads sport a small crest like a cardinal’s, and their black eyes stand out in their otherwise unmarked pale faces.
Titmice are noticeably larger than chickadees, with more than an inch’s difference in length between the two on average. Titmice have small but fairly thick bills, and many sport at least a small patch of black “nose” feathers above the maxilla (upper mandible).
Behavior: Tufted titmice are fairly large for feeder birds, and they are not afraid to throw their weight around, often displacing smaller or less aggressive birds at feeder perches. They do not forage with quite the same boundless energy that chickadees exhibit, but they can still prove quite nimble when hanging for a hard-to-reach treat. We recommend feeding Feathered Friend Chickadee’s Choice or High Energy Fruit & Nut.
Many Massachusetts birds cling and crawl on the trunks of trees, but only the curious little nuthatches descend trees head-first. The name “nuthatch” comes from the way these birds deal with tough seeds. A nuthatch will wedge the seed into a bark crevice or branch crotch and use their chisel-like bill to “hatchet” the “nut” open.
Identification: There are two species of nuthatches in Massachusetts: white-breasted and red-breasted.
At just shy of six inches long, white-breasted nuthatches are the larger of the two and also more commonly seen. They are bluish-gray above, with black caps on their heads. Their faces, breasts, and bellies are white, with rusty coloration around the bird’s vent. Their bills are fairly long and sharply pointed.
Behavior: In addition to their distinctive habit of descending trees head-first, nuthatches will crawl all over tree trunks and larger branches, looking for food in the crevices. Filling feeders with Feathered Friend Black Oil Sunflower is always a good choice for attracting a variety of birds, including the Nuthatch.
The information in this article was sourced from Mass Audubon.
Visit their website to learn more about the wild birds in our area!