Winter Backyard Birds: Birds in A Winter Storm

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Fox Sparrow & Northern Cardinal in snow
Fox Sparrow & Northern Cardinal

Winter backyard birds can be intense. Food sources can be limited so winter bird feeders can be very busy.

The most active and interesting days are often not the bright beautiful sunny days but stormy days. This is when birds are eager to eat as much as they can to keep energy levels high. Yesterday’s winter storm brought us just such a day with really interesting feathered visitors and activity, so I have pictures and stories to share with you.

Female Northern Cardinal in ice-covered brush in the backyard
Female Northern Cardinal in the Icy Wisteria Tangle

Snow & Ice Cover the Backyard

Winter FINALLY arrived in Maryland (in mid-March!) with the huge nor’easter storm that hit the east coast yesterday. As often happens in our part of the state, we were unfortunate enough to be right on the snow/rain line.

Instead of lots of snow, we got a little bit of snow capped with a LOT of ice. This is not weather a bird is going to enjoy. The leaf litter and other areas where over-wintering bugs might be found were capped with ice as was any stray seed on the ground.

Ice Coated Everything in the winter backyard
Ice Coated Everything

Uncovering Snow Covered Feeders

As the sun came up, winter backyard birds found that the platform feeders, although filled with food, were also buried. So I suited up early, chiseled out the snow and ice and spread a good bit of seed over the hard snowy ground as well. I put out more seed than I would put out on a regular day and did this repeatedly as continuing flurries and drizzle kept covering it up again.

Each of the nyjer tube feeders at the far end of the house had a coat of ice down one side, cutting off access to about a third of the ports. This caused quite a bit of bickering among the American Goldfinches. Mobs of them instead went to eat sunflower hearts at other feeders until I got a table knife and scraped the ice off their feeders.

Hermit Thrush in the snow
Hermit Thrush in the Snow

Hermit Thrush

Snowy days always bring more birds in a larger variety to the yard. The most unusual and puzzling bird I saw under the feeders was a Hermit Thrush. I see one in the yard periodically, but usually he is poking around the yard edges and not under feeders. Yesterday though, he was under the Squirrel-Buster Plus feeders in the front and back. I fill these with sunflower hearts.

He didn’t look enthusiastic about what he was finding – unsurprising as they normally eat bugs and berries rather than seeds. He mostly stood there looking around, as if to say, “Is this the best you can do?” He did peck around a bit though, so they must eat seed when there isn’t something tastier on offer.

He has been back quite a few times today.  I put a hand-full of dried meal worms and a few blueberries on the ground near the front feeder to see if either of these would entice him. So far, he hasn’t seemed interested and continues to eat bits of sunflower hearts dropped from the feeder above.

Although he is unimpressed with my alternative offerings, there are other birds who will eat them, so it won’t be wasted. (I saw a Blue Jay eating them already.)

Male Eastern Towhee in the snow
Male Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

One type of bird we usually don’t see in the yard but that almost always shows up when there is a big snow is an Eastern Towhee. Several years ago we had a very snowy winter with almost continuous snow on the ground. That brought two female towhees to eat seed regularly. One ate off the ground in the backyard under the picnic table. The other ate seed off the railings of the front porch. Last year we often saw a lone male when it snowed.

Yesterday’s storm also brought a male towhee. He seemed to be eating safflower and millet on the ground in the back yard. Although they are larger and are more dramatically marked, towhees are in the sparrow family and have some similar habits. So they eat off the ground and do the sparrow jump-back-scratch movement to expose interesting tidbits to eat. He seemed at home hopping around with the other sparrows.

Dark-Eyed Junco in snow covered backyard
Dark-Eyed Junco

Juncos & White-Throated Sparrows

We get Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows all winter in little flocks of six to sixteen. When a winter storm comes through, their numbers grow much bigger. I counted over fifty juncos and close to two dozen white-throats yesterday.

They have gotten pretty used to me. When I went out the first time to put out the seed for them, several were just a few feet away, waiting for me to get busy.

Attracting White-Throats, Juncos & Other Sparrows

Build Brush Piles For Birds

Song Sparrow eating millet in brush pile
Song Sparrow

Fox Sparrows & Song Sparrows

Our yard doesn’t currently have a lot of thick bushes, so we don’t typically see many House Sparrows and none showed up yesterday. However, for the past week, we’ve been pleased to see a Fox Sparrow and a Song Sparrow among the flock. Neither are rare birds in this area, but they don’t often appear in our backyard either.

Fox Sparrow in snowy backyard
Fox Sparrow

Yesterday actually brought a second Fox Sparrow, although every time the two got near each other, one would lash out at the other. So they mostly kept to separate feeding areas. I had so much seed spread out that this wasn’t a problem.

Female Red-Winged Blackbird in snowy backyard
Female Red-Winged Blackbird

Blackbirds, Grackles & Starlings

All that seed not surprisingly also brought in flocks of other birds too. With the very warm weather we’ve been having up until now and spring so close, we’ve been seeing spring flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and European Starlings. They all showed up yesterday, attracted by the seed spread over the hard snowy ground.

While I don’t begrudge them food, these birds do tend to be aggressive and often displace the regular birds from the feeders for long periods. So I go out every so often to get them to back off a bit and allow the smaller birds a chance. (Also see my post on Nuisance Birds at Feeders.)

Interestingly though, I’ve noticed that female Red-Winged Blackbirds tend to be less aggressive than their male counterparts. They seem to get along better with the smaller sparrows.

Male Brown-Headed Cowbird sitting on vine covered branch
Male Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbirds

A flock of Brown-Headed Cowbirds also showed up at the feeders in the afternoon. I’m not a big fan of cowbirds as they are parasitic. Their habit of laying their eggs in other birds’ nests to be raised can result in less for the foster parent’s own nestlings. It may put some other species at risk. I hope they won’t hang around long and will nest elsewhere this spring!

Sick Northern Cardinal huddled in the snow next to a Dark-Eyed Junco
Sick Northern Cardinal and a Dark-Eyed Junco

Sick Northern Cardinal

One of our neighborhood Northern Cardinals didn’t make it through the storm. I spent some time yesterday sitting, heavily bundled up, on the back step, watching and photographing birds.

I noticed a male Northern Cardinal sitting in a protected spot on the ground in the wisteria tangle. It was late in the day and the wind was picking up. Ice that had coated the trees earlier in the day was raining down in big pieces quite dramatically at random intervals. So at first I thought he was just hunkering down to stay out of the path of the frozen projectiles.

Getting Rolled

I watched him eat a couple bits of snow and then get up and walk to the picnic table area about six feet away to eat safflower. He was walking okay but held his wings awkwardly. My guess is that maybe a Cooper’s Hawk or neighborhood cats might have attacked him earlier in the day. He seemed not able to fly. Or it is possible that he was sick and too weak to fly.

Suddenly, as he ate, another male cardinal rushed him from the side and barrel rolled him right over. Cardinals usually get along fairly well in winter. With spring approaching though, the males have started to chase each other around the past few days. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen one roll another completely over. Normally he would have fought back or flown away, but this one picked himself up and quickly retreated to his sheltered spot.

Offering Seed

I’m never sure about the right thing to do in these situations. Should I try to help or does that do more harm than good? I decided to meddle and went out to spread some seed further away on the other side of the picnic table and put just a little nearer to the sick bird. My thought was that this might draw the other birds to the larger offering of fresh seed, while letting this bird get a little to eat since the other bird was keeping him away.

But male cardinals aren’t as tolerant of people as wrens or sparrows or goldfinches. My being even that close spooked him and he quickly walked away further around the side of the wisteria tangle. Not wanting to spook him further I retreated but he didn’t return.

Later, I went out again, keeping well back from the area to see where he was without getting close to him. I didn’t see him at first but then turned and saw him running quite energetically across the snow to the back fence, where he sheltered in leaves blown up there. I don’t know why he moved, whether it was my presence (although I wasn’t close to where he was and wasn’t heading toward him either) or if he was being chased away again by another cardinal. Worried that I would just cause him stress, I let him be. He died there later in the day. It’s part of nature, but it is still sad to see happen.

Attracting Northern Cardinals

Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals and a Dark-Eyed Junco in the snow covered backyard
Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals and a Dark-Eyed Junco

Other Winter Backyard Birds

But other life in the yard continued on around him. Other winter backyard bird regulars, like Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, House Finches, Blue Jays and Carolina Wrens showed up in the storm too. The Cooper’s Hawk made at least one pass through the yard early in the day.

In the morning, as I put out the dried mealworms and blueberries in the front yard, the hawk swooped right past my right ankle and then on across the yard. I suppose I was interfering with her planned hunt there. I may have caused her to miss out on a juicy junco, although she seems to miss more often than she succeeds anyway.

Dark-Eyed Junco Eating Suet
Male Downy Woodpecker Eating Suet

Waiting For Snow & Ice to Melt

The yard today is covered with a hard thick crunchy coat of frozen ice/snow littered with broken bits of sparkling ice and small twigs from the trees. It all glittered in the early morning sun. The yard will continue to be extra busy until the snow melts later in the week, although not as busy as it got during the storm. So I’ll keep watching and will see what winter backyard birds I can see.

Nancie

Also see: Squirrels & Buried Acorns

Learn More About Winter Backyard Birds

My Blog Posts:

Central Maryland Backyard Birds

Spring Backyard Birds

Summer Backyard Birds

Backyard Birds on a Damp Day

Look Beyond Bird Feeders

The Birds You Don’t See

All About Birds Website:

Hermit Thrush

Eastern Towhee

Dark-Eyed Junco

White-Throated Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Red-Winged Blackbird

Common Grackle

European Starling

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Northern Cardinal

Cooper’s Hawk


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2 thoughts on “Winter Backyard Birds: Birds in A Winter Storm

  1. Gorgeous photos, Nancie. Here in CT, we had the blizzard. I moved any and all my feeders onto my front porch, some were even inside some very old wooden crates turned on their side facing away from the winds. My front porch was quite the mess the day after, but I was happy they were more protected and fed.

    1. Thanks Mary Ann. That’s an interesting approach. I haven’t tried moving feeders just for a storm. Makes sense that keeping them out of the winds would help. (Hard for a bird to sit on a feeder perch when the feeder is moving all over the place in the wind.) Did the birds have any trouble finding them in their new locations?

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