Winter’s coming! Is your yard ready?

November Snow

November Snow

Looks like I got my yard ready for winter just in the nick of time! I spent the afternoon yesterday hauling in my patio chairs, hose and yard ornaments, and putting the roosting box and winter feeders out and covering up my spigots. Today, snow is covering the yard!

It always makes me a little sad when I have to winterize the yard because it means the gardening season is over for the year and I’ll have to wait until next spring. But does that mean that nothing will happen in my yard until spring? … Not even close!

My yard is FULL of activity during the cold months. It is a great time to get to know your birds. Individuals, that are normally territorial during the nesting season, will come together  in large flocks in search of food, water and shelter. If you provide one or all, they will definitely seek out your yard.

Nijer feeder with gold finches and pine siskins.

Nijer feeder with gold finches

In addition to my regular seed feeder and nijer feeder, there are several feeders that I put out during the winter months. The peanut feeder is quite popular, although make sure you buy the peanuts for birds (sold at pet or hardware stores), not the kind meant for people. All of the salt and seasoning isn’t really good for the birds. The suet feeders are also popular. The rich, high calorie suet cakes help the birds pack on fat to stay warm on those cold winter nights. For my non-seed eaters, such as my bluebirds, robins and mockingbirds, I put out raisins and dried mealworms in a tray feeder. Make sure you put food out regularly and eventually, you may have a couple bolder birds peering into your windows when the food is running a little low! They know who is feeding them! 🙂

A roosting box has the hole at the bottom in order to retain heat. There are also perches inside the box for multiple birds.

A roosting box has the hole at the bottom in order to retain heat. There are also perches inside the box for multiple birds.

Providing shelter is another way to attract birds and other critters to your yard. Leave those nestboxes up, or better yet, invest in a roosting box or two. Birds will seek these out to get out of the elements. The easiest way to provide shelter if you don’t want to spend the money on boxes (or in addition to the boxes) is to not cut your plants back until spring. Doing so will provide shelter for all kinds of creatures, not just birds.

The final thing to provide in your yard, if you can, is water. Believe it or not, water is hard to come by during winter, especially when everything is frozen, and birds still need to drink and bathe in order to stay healthy. I have a pond that takes a little longer to freeze over or there are heaters specially made for bird baths.

Providing any or all of these things will ensure that you have plenty of visitors in your yard. And the best part about it is, you can watch them all from the comfort of your toasty warm home! Just keep those binoculars and guide books handy!

Below is a list of birds that have visited my yard during the winter. What birds or critters have visited your yard?

mourning dove_02-25-11_1732_edited Mourning Doves. These brown doves with black spots on their backs usually arrive in small groups. I usually have about a dozen or so. They like to feed on the ground under the feeders or on a low platform feeder, so I usually throw some seed around on the ground for them. You can see these doves year-round.
red-bellied woodpeckers_female - male Red-bellied Woodpeckers. They are named for the pink area of feathers on their bellies just above the tail (trust me on this, I just didn’t capture that on the photos). The one on the left is a female. Notice how the red stripe starts further back on her head (reminds me of a receding hair-line). The one on the right is a male. His stripe runs all the way over his head. These are medium-sized woodpeckers and they love the peanuts and the suet, although you will also see them at the seed feeder. They live in the area year-round.
downy - hairy woodpeckers Downy Woodpecker (left). Hairy Woodpecker (right). It took me awhile to figure out at a glance which bird was which. Their coloring is very similar, but as you can see, there is a size difference. The Downy is our smallest woodpecker and fairly common at the feeders. The Hairy is larger (he’s actually turned slightly as well, so you’re not getting the full size difference) and has a longer bill (another thing you’re not seeing clearly from the photo). The Hairy (at least mine are) are a bit more camera shy. These are both males. Notice the red spot on the back of the Downy’s head? The males in both species will have this. The females in both species are lacking the red. They love the peanuts and the suet, but will also eat regular seed. Both of these woodpeckers live in the area year-round.
pileated woodpeckers_female - male Pileated Woodpecker. These crow-sized birds are our largest woodpeckers. These photos are not very good, but I lucked out. These are shy woodpeckers that like to keep to the woods. One pair will have a territory that covers a very large area. Even though they live in the area all year, I only see them occasionally. The photo on the left is of a female that happened to visit my suet feeder a couple of winters ago. The one on the right is a male that dropped by last year. Notice the red hood on the female starts further back on her head? Also, she is lacking the red on her mustache. These birds don’t usually visit my feeders, but friends of mine who have more old growth trees around their homes say they are more frequent visitors at their suet feeders.
flicker_01-17-14_6524_editedflicker_03-14-11_1843_edited This is a Northern Flicker. Of all the woodpeckers, this is the one you would most likely see on the ground. In the summer, they spend their time turning over rocks and peaking around fallen logs looking for their favorite food…beetles and carpenter ants! An easy way to identify them is to look for the red V on the back of their heads. You will also see the yellow on the underside of their wings when they fly.

Here is another photo of the Northern Flickers. The one behind the feeder is a male. The one in the front is a female. An easy way to tell the difference… the male has a mustache and the female does not. They love the peanuts and the suet. They live in the area year-round.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird. Blue Jay. This bird has a reputation for being noisy and often a bully at the feeders, but they play an important role. Many birds rely on the blue jay to alert them to danger. Blue Jays have also been known to harass predators until they leave. I personally enjoy these colorful birds. You can see them year-round in Missouri. They especially love the peanuts and the suet.
chickadee_12-26-10_1585_edited Chickadee. These little birds are chattery and full of spunk. They are often some of the first birds at a feeder and are not shy at all. They are usually chattering around me just out of reach when I’m filling the feeders. You can see them year-round in Missouri. They will come to the regular seed feeder as well as the peanut and suet feeders.
titmouse_12-26-10_1619_edited Tufted Titmouse. This cute little guy is related to the Chickadee. They too, are not shy and are often the first to the feeders. They will sit in the trees calling “Peter, Peter, Peter”. You can see them year-round in Missouri. They will come to the regular seed feeder, the peanut and the suet feeders. They also enjoy the mealworms that I occasionally put out.
nuthatch_12-26-10_1606_edited White-breasted Nuthatch. This handsome little guy can often be seen going down the trunk of a tree head-first like it’s doing here on the feeder. They have really strong feet and special neck muscles that allow them to remain in this position. They especially love the peanuts and suet, but will also visit the seed feeder. You can see them in Missouri year-round.
Carolina wren_01-11-14_6394_edited Carolina Wren. This brown little bird darts around on the ground searching for insects in the warm seasons or bits of suet or other food that the other birds dropped in the winter. This wren stays year-round in Missouri. An easy way to distinguish the Carolina Wren from the House Wren is by the white stripe above its eye. It will visit the seed, peanut and suet feeders.
Eastern bluebirds are Missouri's state bird. A female is reaching for a raisin at my feeder while the male waits for his turn. Eastern Bluebird. This is Missouri’s state bird. Oftentimes, when I mention Bluebirds, people think I’m talking about Blue Jays. That is not the case. These are gentle little birds that are from the Thrush family and are actually related to Robins. They are mainly insect eaters, but will eat berries or suet during the winter. They also enjoy the peanuts. Mine don’t tend to eat the mealworms I put out, although other people say that their bluebirds can’t get enough mealworms. My bluebirds hang around the area year-round. The female on the left is reaching for a raisin. She is not as bright of a blue as the male on the right.
robin_01-31-14_6748_edited American Robin. I think most people are familiar with this bird, although most people don’t know that Robins hang around Missouri year-round. Robins are also insect-eaters, but will eat berries during the winter. I’ve only seen them eat the raisins at my feeders.
mockingbird_02-25-11_1728_edited Northern Mockingbird. This gray bird with white bands on its wings is quite the vocalist. Mockingbirds have the ability to mimic other birds’ songs. You can often hear them singing very loudly from a tree EARLY in the morning. They are also here year-round. They are insect-eaters, but switch to berries in the winter. They only eat the raisins at my feeders.
starling_01-14-14_6426_edited European Starlings. These birds tend to be a nuisance at the feeders. They descend on the area in huge flocks and gobble up everything they can in a matter of minutes. I usually try to shoo them away, but tolerated them for the sake of the photo. They are an exotic species introduced to New York in the 1890s and have greatly increased their numbers and have spread across much of the United States. They can be bullies at the feeders, but are easily frightened. They’re actually quite beautiful. At first glance, all you see is a black bird with a yellow beak. But if you look closely, their feathers are speckled and have bits of green in the black. They’re fun to watch, but if you are trying to help our native birds, they can be a hassle. They are here year-round.
yellow-rumped warbler_02-03-14_6843_edited Yellow-rumped Warbler. This particular warbler winters here in Missouri, but will fly north during the summer months. You can recognize this bird by the yellow underneath its wings and on its back just above the tail. It’s also called “Butter-butt”. I’m serious, that’s what the guidebook says! They’re mainly ground feeders but will eat from the peanut feeder. It likes the suet, but it can’t hang on the suet feeder.
fox sparrow_02-05-14_6892_edited Fox Sparrow. The different species of the Sparrow family are more difficult to ID than some of the other birds. This sparrow is larger than the other sparrows and has a heavily streaked belly. This isn’t the best photo (I actually had to take it through the binoculars!) It has a redder brown on it than some of our sparrows and it has a gray head. It’s a ground feeder and you can often see it scratching like a chicken. This is a winter visitor in Missouri.
song sparrow_02-02-14_6797 Song Sparrow. This sparrow is much smaller than the Fox Sparrow. It doesn’t have the reddish brown, just regular brown. And it has the stripes on its head instead of the solid gray. It too has a heavily striped belly that comes together in a spot on its chest. It’s a ground feeder and likes to search for seed and suet that has fallen from the feeders. This is a year-round resident for much of Missouri and a winter visitor for the south-western part of the state.
white-throated sparrow_01-17-14_6498_edited White-throated Sparrow. This sparrow is easier to identify. Just look for the white throat! Also, (it’s a little difficult to see in this photo) it has yellow stripes just above the eyes. This too is a ground feeder but it will visit the seed and peanut feeders. You can see it here in Missouri during the winter months.
junco-titmouse_12-06-13_6166_edited Dark-eyed Junco (right). The little gray and white bird on the right is also in our native Sparrow family. They are winter visitors here in Missouri. I usually look for them to come or go when the seasons change. They are normally ground-feeders but can occasionally be seen visiting the seed and peanut feeders.
cardinals_female - male Northern Cardinal. Everybody in St. Louis should recognize this bird! Cardinals are members of the Finch family and are mainly seed eaters. They do however enjoy the peanuts and will occasionally eat the raisins that I put out. The one on the left is a female. She’s not as red as the male on the right. They are in Missouri year-round.
goldfinch_01-17-14_6486_edited American Goldfinch. This little yellow bird is a bit duller in the winter than it is in the summer with the males more closely resembling the females in color. During the summer months, the males sport very bright yellow feathers with a black cap on its forehead. These birds like to cling to the nijer feeder, but will also visit the regular seed feeder. They are here year-round.
English sparrows_female - male House (or English) Sparrow. This bird is actually not related to our native sparrows. In fact, it’s more closely related to finches, but not in the same family. This bird was introduced to New York in 1850 and has spread throughout the United States. Unlike the European Starlings, these birds know how to share at the feeders, so I generally let them be during the winter months. They are aggressive about nest sites though and many of our native birds have declined from competition with Starlings and House Sparrows. Neither of those two birds are protected in the United States and it is best to discourage them from evicting our native birds. I’ve personally had problems with them evicting my bluebirds (a native bird that had a population drop of 90% by the 1970s due to severe winters and nest competition with House Sparrows and Starlings). The female on the left looks much different from the male on the right. The male will have a black face mask and bib. These are year-round residents. They are generally ground feeders, but will visit the seed, suet and peanut feeders.

Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are also frequent visitors to my feeders during the cold months, but unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of them.

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It’s Not Always Bad To Have the “Blues”!

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri's state bird. A female is reaching for a raisin at my feeder while the male waits for his turn.

Eastern bluebirds are Missouri’s state bird. They often visit my raisin feeders during the winter months. A female is reaching for a raisin while the male waits for his turn.

I’ve always been fascinated by bluebirds, ever since my grandpa pointed one out to me when I was a little girl. A lot of people get confused when I mention “bluebird”.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

A blue jay. It is larger than the bluebird.

They usually say, “Oh, I don’t like them! They’re mean!”

“Not the bluebird,” I tell them. “You’re thinking about the blue JAY!”

Blue jays are larger birds. They are loud and have a reputation for being bullies at the feeders. They’re not all bad though, and often are the watch dogs when it comes to looking out for predators near the feeders. I must admit, despite their reputation, I actually enjoy those birds. But the bluebirds aren’t like that.

Bluebirds are small members of the thrush family. They’re actually related to the American robin. Their brilliant blue feathers and their gentle demeanor make them a garden favorite, not to mention the excellent insect control you get from hosting these little birds in your yard!

So why do so many people confuse the two?

It could be that they’re just not familiar with the bluebird. First of all, bluebirds don’t typically hang out at feeders. They are mainly insect eaters, although they will eat berries and may take raisins, peanuts or suet from feeders in the winter. Secondly, bluebird numbers were low for a while. That bluebird that I saw as a little girl was one of the last bluebirds that I saw for about twenty years until I saw one flying at a cemetery! With the introduction of aggressive house sparrows and starlings in the late 1800s to early 1900s which competed for nesting sites, loss of habitat due to urbanization, and compounded by some harsh winters in the late 70s and early 80s, bluebird populations were reduced by 90%. Thanks to the introduction of bluebird boxes (nest boxes specifically designed for bluebirds) and increased public awareness, bluebird numbers have slowly been recovering. I myself have been hosting bluebirds in my yard since I put up my first bluebird nest box in 2009.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if my resident bluebirds’ current clutch is getting ready to hatch. The male and female have been hanging around the entrance hole all day, often peering inside. This is their second clutch of the year, their first brood having left the nest a few weeks ago. They typically have 2 to 3 broods a year, laying between 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

Left: A bluebird nest is cup-shaped. Right: Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.
A bluebird nest is cup shaped. Bluebirds lay 4 to 6 eggs per clutch.

The male introduces the female to the nest box around late February or early March, calling to her and waving his wings. Once she deems a site suitable, the female will proceed to build a cup shaped nest out of grass. She will build a new nest for each subsequent clutch throughout the season, stacking the nests right on top of the last. With the old nest box, I was able to pull each nest out individually at the end of the season. With my new nest box, however, I have to clean out the old nest right after the fledglings leave the nest, otherwise the new babies will be too close to the entrance hole and easier for predators to get to. Once the eggs are laid, incubation lasts for about two weeks.

Left: Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. Right: The male bluebird stands guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
Baby bluebirds about 4 days old. The male bluebird standing guard while two of his nestlings peek out of the nest box.
A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd's hook near my house.

A young bluebird sitting on a shepherd’s hook near my house.

Don't take down those nest boxes! Bluebirds will often use them to roost in during the winter. About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

Don’t take down those nest boxes during the winter! About 9 bluebirds piled in this one to stay warm.

The female may be the one who builds the nest and sits on the eggs, but the male is still a doting father. He will often visit the eggs and “talk” to them, and then he will help feed the babies and keep the nest tidy once the babies have hatched. And after the young bluebirds have left the nest, which is around 15 to 18 days after they hatch, the male can often be seen looking after the youngsters while the female is sitting on the new clutch of eggs about a week later. The previous broods, too, will often help feed their younger siblings and by the end of the summer, I have a large family of bluebirds hanging around the yard!


For more information on how to attract bluebirds, nest box plans, and predator control, visit the North American Bluebird Society‘s website. Also, if you’d like to purchase a bluebird nest box, I highly recommend that you visit the Audubon Workshop. I’ve purchased several nest and roosting boxes from them and have been quite happy with my purchases!