Come December, we will have said goodbye to many of our resident summer birds and the migrants who passed through in the fall. But we do have feathered friends who spend all four seasons with us. We’re also visited by the birds who breed to the north but come down to spend their winter vacation in the Keystone State.
In Pennsylvania, approximately 35 species of birds can be observed throughout the winter months. Though the greatest diversity of species might appear at feeders in wooded rural areas, feeders in urban areas will have bird activity too!
In winter, birds will concentrate around feeding stations statewide, so common and rare species alike are often found at feeders. Below is a list of the more common species you might see stopping by for a bite to eat:
- Northern Cardinal
- House Finch
- American Goldfinch
- Tufted Titmouse
- Black-capped Chickadee (most frequent visitor)
- Blue Jay
- White-breasted Nuthatch
- Dark-eyed Junco (most frequent visitor)
- Mourning Dove
- Downy Woodpecker
- Red-Bellied Woodpecker
- American Crow
- American Tree Sparrow
The Seedy Part of Town
The type and variety of seed you provide in your feeders can influence the birds that stop by for a visit. If you want to attract a variety of species, provide a variety of foods. The best all-round seed is the small black-oil sunflower seed. It’s preferred by many smaller species, including chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice because it has a thin seed coat that is easy to crack open. It also has a high oil content that is nutritionally important for birds. The striped sunflower seed is slightly larger but is very popular with blue jays and cardinals. Besides sunflower seeds, other popular seed types include white proso millet, nyjer, and peanuts.
Peanuts will attract blue jays, chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers. They can be offered as shelled kernels, in the shell, or as peanut hearts. The hearts are valuable because they are small and can be eaten by many smaller species of birds.
Suet is another type of food that can enhance your feeding station. Suet is a high-quality animal fat that is sought-after in winter. It is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice, although some atypical feeder birds like Carolina Wrens and Brown Creepers also like it.
Have you ever heard of “Marvel Meal”? It’s a mixture that’s fun for the whole family to make – a favorite of chickadees, titmice, wrens, and even bluebirds! It can be pressed into the holes of a log feeder or smeared directly onto the bark of trees. It can also be frozen into blocks and put in a suet feeder or sliced into chunks and placed on a feeder tray.
Recipe for Marvel Meal
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup vegetable shortening
4 cups cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 handful of sunflower seeds (optional)
The Watering Hole
A water source is something to consider along with supplying food. Cold winter temperatures can mean a time of drought for birds. Therefore, water becomes particularly attractive to birds in winter. Bird baths provide opportunities for drinking and bathing. Heaters can be used to prevent the water from freezing. Ideally, your birdbath should be placed near a tree with overhanging branches so that the birds have a place to sit and preen.
Various water birds pass through the state during the month of December including ducks, gulls, and herons. Gulls, notably ring-billed and herring, begin to occupy area lakes and rivers. Waterfowl during this month are most likely to be found in larger bodies of open water. Although the largest movement of waterfowl passed through the state in November, various diving ducks (Common Goldeneyes, Redheads and Canvasbacks) and Red-breasted Merganser may be found in deep water bodies. These species are not likely to appear in smaller ponds, but often are seen in larger rivers, like the Susquehanna, Allegheny and Delaware. Lingering dabbling ducks also may be found across the state until surface water freezes.
Come late January, a few permanent residents may start to sing again, especially Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Tufted Titmice. The buoyant song of the Carolina Wren can be heard any time of year but is particularly welcome on a sunny January day! On warmer days, male Eastern Bluebirds will start singing and bluebird pairs will begin checking out nest boxes. The long, dark nights of January are nesting season for Great Horned Owls that are hooting each evening, often starting about a half-hour before dusk.
In addition to the resident birds increasing activity, some birds begin to migrate back from the south. Waterfowl, such as geese, Tundra Swans, American Black Ducks, Mallards, Northern Pintails, Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, and Common Mergansers may begin to return to the Commonwealth. As in January, open water and fields provide the best birding anywhere in Pennsylvania.
Opportunities for Bird Watching (Other than Backyard Feeders)
Open water and streams, unfrozen bodies of water
brushy fields of shrubs and grasses
thickets of trees
Areas where there are wild fruits and berries
Resources and References:
Birding Through the Seasons – January
Birding Through the Seasons – December
Birding Through the Seasons – February
Winter Bird Feeding: The Basics