Winter “Feeder Birds”

by Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant

An American Goldfinch perched on a sunflower stalk.
An American Goldfinch perched on a sunflower stalk.

Wow! Is that an escaped canary outside?  No, it’s a male American Goldfinch, adding a splash of yellow to the drab winter landscape.  

Enticing birds and other wildlife to visit your backyard is rather simple: if you offer the food, they will come.   Native plantings will provide seeds and fruit for birds for much of the year, but in the depths of winter, a little supplemental feeding will bring them to your backyard where you can see them easily, and in tough times, can help them survive.

A bright male Purple Finch visits a black oil sunflower seed feeder.
A bright male Purple Finch visits a black oil sunflower seed feeder.

A favorite (and uncommon) feeder visitor is the Purple Finch, a species that breeds in boreal forests and only visits our area during the winter period.  Males are a gorgeous raspberry-purple, with a dark “mask” patch extending behind the eye.  Female and young male Purple Finches are heavily streaked with brown, and have the same “masked” appearance. 

A side-by-side comparison of male House(l) and Purple(r) Finches.
A side-by-side comparison of male House(l) and Purple(r) Finches.
The most common “red” finch seen at backyard feeders is the House Finch, a species originally native to the American Southwest but now found all over the eastern United States.  Male House Finches have an orange-red coloration on the head and chest, and duller brown streaking compared to the Purple Finch. 
A female House Finch.
A female House Finch.
Female House Finches are very plain, with light brown streaking.
A Pine Siskin visits a feeder filled with nyjer.
A Pine Siskin visits a feeder filled with nyjer.
Another uncommon and prized feeder visitor is the Pine Siskin.  Although superficially resembling a goldfinch, the siskin is a bird with a finer, more pointed beak and very streaky plumage.  Pine Siskins breed in the boreal forest, and in some winters travel southward in huge numbers, in what is termed an “irruption.”  Due to food scarcity, these nomadic birds travel in search of better feeding opportunities.  If we are lucky, they end up at our feeders! 
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker visits a log packed with peanut butter/seed mix.
A male Red-bellied Woodpecker visits a log packed with peanut butter/seed mix.
A fun trick to try for attracting birds is to smear peanut butter (mixed with sunflower seeds) or suet(rendered beef fat) on bark.  Drill holes in a log, pack them with peanut butter and hang it up– you will be amazed at the birds that visit!  Woodland birds like woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Chickadees are very fond of these high-calorie snacks.  
A female Northern Cardinal brightens up the backyard.
A female Northern Cardinal brightens up the backyard.
If you enjoy watching birds visit your feeders, you can record your observations and participate in fun “citizen science” projects that help us all better understand our backyard birds.
 
Project FeederWatch, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,  is a nationwide effort to document feeder birds.  “Count Feeder Birds For Science”    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/
The Great Backyard Bird Count, held this year from February 13-16, is a nationwide effort to document wintering species of birds in North America.  Visit: www.birdsource.org/gbbc
Have fun watching birds this winter!

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