Last Updated on February 1, 2021 by Nancie
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.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Snow & Ice Covers Bird’s Food Sources
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.
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. (Update: I’ve since learned some tricks on feeding ground feeding birds on snowy days.)
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 Under Feeders
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 Hermit Thrushes 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.)
Eastern Towhee in the Snow
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blackbirds, Grackles & Starlings Appear When it Snows
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 small sparrows and Cardnials, etc. that also will feed on the ground or in platform feeders.
Brown-Headed Cowbirds in the Snow
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
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.
Cardinal Gets 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 unable 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 Sick Cardinal 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.
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.
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.
Also see: Squirrels & Buried Acorns
Learn More About Winter Backyard Birds
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