birdnote q&a: what do ‘our’ birds do in winter?

Great horned owl in a snowy nest (photo by David Stephens).BIRDS ARE IMPRESSIVE in the ways they cope with winter, whether by fleeing or toughing it out like the great horned owl (above) on its snow-coated nest. Ever wonder how chickadees find those seeds they stashed for winter use, or just how far south some species will go to spend the offseason? Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show, has the answers, along with some tips on what we can provide to “our” birds in winter.

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our ongoing series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to hear BirdNote daily. Easiest of all: browse all the BirdNote series stories at this link.

winter bird q&a with ellen blackstone

Q. How far south do migratory birds go for the winter?

A. They cover a very wide range of distances, but here’s a hint at some of the impressive extremes:

Our humble barn swallow is a true long-distance migrant, and may winter as far south as southern South America, often returning to the same area year after year. Imagine: the sprightly bird that nested in the eaves under your garage, catching insects in the Pantanal in southern Brazil!

Barn swallow babies (photo by Rebecca B). Don’t you wish you could see? (Those are baby barn swallows on a shelf-like nest up North in the photo above.)

Eastern and Western bluebirds are either resident, or medium-distance migrants—meaning they may travel to Texas or Mexico, or may remain on their breeding grounds, or relocate to somewhere in between.

Scarlet Tanager Dan IrizarryWestern tanagers find their way into Central America, but their cousins, scarlet and summer tanagers, may make it all the way to Bolivia. That’s the male scarlet tanager, above.

Gray Silky-flycatcher - Pablo LeautaudJust think of the exotic birds our summer residents might rub shoulders, er, wings with–blue mockingbirds, berylline hummingbirds, and gray silky-flycatchers (above), crescent-chested warblers, brown-backed solitaires…. Listen in now to their chorus, recorded in Mexico.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds range far into Central America, where they spend the winter with dozens of other species of hummingbirds. Imagine all those colors!

Q. I often see chickadees (and nuthatches) in late summer and early fall rushing around seeming to stash seeds around the garden. Do they really manage to find those caches of goodies in the winter, when they need them?

Black-capped-Chickadee-seed-Jeremy-Gettysburg-PAA. Chickadees (like the black-capped, left), nuthatches, some woodpeckers, wrens, and many other birds remain in their more northerly habitats, rather than migrating, but their diets change with the season.

While chickadees and nuthatches eat mostly insects in the warmer months, in winter, they happily come to your seed and suet feeders. And yes, they also rely on all those seeds they stashed away last summer, amazing as it seems. In the case of the chickadees, they manage to find them when they need them because of a seasonal change in their brains, specifically in the hippocampus. Learn about the research that revealed this amazing capability.

Q. Do species stick to themselves—the way they seem to during breeding season–or join forces in winter?

A. Many small songbirds join up in mixed-species flocks to forage. More eyes and ears can help to thwart predators. Listen to a noisy, mix-breed flock, foraging and moving together.

These same small birds may roost with others of their species. And not only do chickadees huddle with their buddies, but they also lower their body temperature in order to save energy, like this. This is especially helpful at high northern latitudes, such as Fairbanks, Alaska, where they even manage in 40 below.

The tiniest nuthatch of all, the pygmy nuthatch, may have set the record for Number of Birds You Can Stuff in a Cavity. Cornell’s All About Birds says the winning score is, “at least 100 in a single hole.”

Some woodpeckers, like the pileated woodpecker, excavate cavities specifically as winter roosting spots, like this.

Learn more about how birds spend a cold winter’s night.

#ds56 - Crows in SilhouetteCrows and starlings both roost with their own kind, sometimes in huge roosts. Up to 40,000 crows in one space is not uncommon for a winter-time roost. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a roost, you can see rivers of crows flying over in the afternoon (photo above). What purpose does this winter roost serve? Check out this audio clip to learn.

Q. So what about nesting? Do any of the birds that hang around and don’t migrate nest?

A. It may be hard to imagine, but for red crossbills and white-winged crossbills, it all depends on the cone crop. If there’s enough to feed a family, these birds will produce one, even in winter. Their specialized beak allows them to get the seeds from the cones, like this.

Large raptors–hawks, eagles, and owls—actually begin to nest in the depths of winter. It takes a long time to raise a baby hawk or owl to the size at which it can fend for itself, so these birds have to start early. Great horned owls, depending on latitude, may begin nesting as early as December. About raptor breeding.

Q. One of the most noticeable changes in many of “our” winter birds, of course, is the faded color of their plumage, but do all birds get duller-colored in the offseason?

Green-winged Teal © Tom GreyA. The male American goldfinch has lost its beautiful sunny yellow, in order to blend with its dull winter setting. But male ducks, like the green-winged teal (photo above) are looking their best in their brilliant breeding plumage. This is, after all, the time of year when they’re courting females.

Ptarmigan turn white as…well, snow…in order to blend in with their snowy backgrounds. While most of us aren’t likely to spot a ptarmigan in the garden, it’s hard to pass up the photo above for sheer cuteness.

Q. Any tips for us on providing winter assistance to “our” birds (even if not to ptarmigan, perhaps)?

A. One thing’s certain: the birds that remain for the winter are hungry and thirsty. You can learn more about providing for your cold-weather friends from these BirdNote resources.

And if you do have a feeder, consider joining Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, which starts in mid-November. Learn more here.

Another idea: If you’d like to visit your summer birds in winter–be it in Mexico, Central or South America–consider an eco-tourism trip. Eco-tourism is a win-win-win situation: You receive the services of a local expert. The guide therefore has employment. And the birds thrive, because those communities have an economic incentive to protect the birds and their habitats.

Although these migrants don’t nest during this season, their habitat when they leave us is just as important. So even if you can’t visit, you can support it:

Shade-coffee plantations offer healthy, sustainable wintering grounds (pun definitely intended) for these birds. Buying shade-grown coffee helps nurture the birds at this end of their travels, like this.

Check out the possibilities at Birds and Beans; at the National Zoo program; at Grounds for Change and at Thanksgiving Coffee.

And request it at your local market or coffee shop. The more requests retailers receive for shade-grown coffee, the more likely they are to carry it. Happy bird-friendly sipping!

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:

(Photos used with permission: Scarlet tanager by Dan Irizarry; white-tailed ptarmigan by Bruce Cyg; barn swallow babies by RebeccaB; gray silky flycatcher by Pablo Leautaud;  black-capped chickadee by Jeremy, Gettysburg, PA; crow silhouettes by  Sharon Drummond; great horned owl by David Stephens; green-winged teal by Tom Grey.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. heidih says:

    Great information and links. I am in Southern California so my perspective is quite different. The goldfinches here are still quite yellow and scarfing down nyger seed. A local 53 acre lake is drying so we have shorebirds treating it like mudflats. Local birder posted ” Last weekend a Ferruginous Hawk showed up, an American Redstart showed up today, and there have been some intriguing shorebirds, gulls, swifts-you name it!” Fascinating creatures – birds in general. Thank you!

  2. Bill says:

    Enjoyed this. I chuckled thinking that the barn swallows who left copious amounts of poo on my hay are now living it up in Brazil. And I growled a little thinking of the hawk I discovered in our chickenyard this afternoon, wishing it had started nesting a little earlier this year.

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    A nearby town hosted an immense gathering of crows for many weeks. We saw it in person at dusk on an evening near Halloween. VERY spooky.

  4. Linda says:

    I live in Northern California, and have a bluebird house . Over the last few years we’ve had about 15 babies fledged. Usually after the second brood in late summer, they all leave , to be seen again only occasionally, until the next spring . Last winter we had some very cold nights, and I noticed bluebirds going into the nest box at evening. Watching in the morning, I observed 5 bluebirds flying out, every morning. I even got a video of it! When you consider the box floor is 4″x5″, that’s a lot of birds in one box. That’s how they keep warm!!


  5. Cecily frazier says:

    Let me add Dean’s Beans to the list of good sources for shade grown coffees. They put a lot of emphasis on other important factors like fair trade and local economic development, but I like the fact they are nearby in MA and that Dean travels all the time to the see the growers and knows what they are doing.
    PS. I have no interest in this except doing as much good as possible when I have to spend money on coffee.

  6. Lorie says:

    Had our first snow in eastern NE…just enough to bring back all the cardinals who seem to remember the location of feeders and water source at this house. As soon as the sun begins to go down they arrive as a group and take advantage of the yews for cover. It’s a joyous sight for sure.

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