January and February Birding Tips

Birding Tips from Audubon North Carolina and from The Outdoor Bird Co.

Q. Do birds “of a different feather” ever flock together?

A. Yes, this is very common! In fact most birds follow mixed species flocks most of the year, whether as permanent residents or migrants spending the winter in the tropics. Here in North Carolina, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers make up the core of our winter mixed flocks with other species like kinglets, creepers, and warblers and vireos joining in for the winter.

Q. Is winter a good time to clean out my nestboxes?

A. It depends on the bird using the box. The time to clean your nuthatch box is late summer or early fall, as nuthatches begin nest-building as early as December by bringing in soft plant material as insulation. Bluebird boxes, on the other hand, can be cleaned through late winter.

Q. Is it better to keep suet in my bird feeder over the winter, instead of seeds?

A. Suet is a great addition to winter feeding as it has a higher fat content than seeds. Whether store-bought or homemade, suet offers birds more calories to keep their energy and body heat up when the temperature drops. Making your own suet is easy, affordable, and fun. Most recipes contain basic ingredients including shortening, nut butter, seeds/oats, and corn meal.

Q. What’s that little yellow bird at my feeder?

A. It’s probably a Pine Warbler. Males are bright yellow in front. Adult females are also yellow in front, but less bright. Both sexes have white wing bars on gray wings and white bellies. From beak tip to tail tip, they’re around five and a half inches long. Several other warbler species are possible in North Carolina in the winter and are appearing more frequently inland. Share your mystery-bird photos at www.facebook.com/audubonnc/.

Q: What’s that tiny gray bird at my feeder?

A. Several small gray birds are likely to join your usual titmice and chickadees at the suet on the coldest days of the year. Suet is of course high in fat, which is exactly what small songbirds need to survive very cold nights. You might see a first-year female Pine Warbler, similar to the adults described above, but very plain-looking and gray. But the truly tiny greenish-gray birds you could see in winter are both kinglets—our smallest birds next to hummingbirds. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is all gray except for distinctive white eye markings, a white wing-bar, and—in excited males only—a brilliant ruby-red crest. The Golden-crowned Kinglet always shows a striped face and crest. Both males and females have the golden crest, though it’s larger and more noticeable on males.

Q: What’s that rusty, streaked bird eating seeds on the ground?

A. If it’s the shape and size of a large sparrow—about like a White-throated Sparrow— it’s a Fox Sparrow. The Fox Sparrow winters across North Carolina and is more likely to visit urban and suburban yards when there’s snow on the ground. From the top, its head is gray and rust, its back is striped in rust and gray, and its front is bold rusty streaks on a white breast and belly. Another rusty, streaked bird you could see is the Brown Thrasher, which is slender and long-tailed. With its staring yellow eyes, it’s much more reptilian-looking than the dapper Fox Sparrow.

Q. What is the big deal with birds and mealworms?

A. Mealworms are not worms but the larval form of a beetle. Most birds think of them as a delicacy. They have a high nutritional value, containing 50 percent protein. Mealworms are also a safe bird feeding source because they do not carry any human diseases. Many people think they are just for Bluebirds, but they are loved by most every species.

Q. How do heated birdbaths work?

A. Birdbath heaters and heated baths come in many sizes and prices. Most work in the same way by heating the water when the temperature drops below freezing. They come equipped with a sensor that tells the heater to turn on just long enough to bring the water temperature above 32-degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the effective ones must be connected to an electrical source. Because of the sensor they cost only pennies a day to provide water during those cold winter days.

Q. Where do Bluebirds go during the winter?

A. Bluebirds in this area do not migrate; they are permanent residents. They usually group together because they are not territorial during the fall and winter. Bluebird groups drift from yard to yard looking for the best sources of food, water, and shelter. You can keep them around by offering mealworms and sunflower hearts. Clean nest boxes for roosting and clean water are very important for them.

Q. When do cavity-nesting birds begin to build a nest?

A. Most local backyard birds start looking for a right place to build their nest at the end of winter, which can mean the beginning of February in the Triangle area. Chickadees and titmice are among the earliest to build nests and lay their eggs. Our beloved bluebirds take a little longer and may not decide on a proper nest site for their first batch until the end of February. It is not too early to clean out already existing houses in your yard or to add new ones so you’ll be ready when they are.

Q. Should I attach my bird house to a tree or on a pole?

A. You can attach most nest boxes on a tree since most natural cavity sites for nesting are found in trees. Putting a nest box on a pole, however, offers many advantages. Houses on poles get fewer insect infestations and the pole becomes an impediment for natural predators, such as cats, to get to the eggs and babies. The addition of a baffle on the pole will give the babies even more protection against squirrels, raccoons and their number one predator – snakes. Having a nest box on pole also gives you more flexibility in picking the best location to place the house.

Q. How do birds survive frigid weather?

A. First of all, many birds grow nearly twice as many feathers to stay warm in the colder months. This process often gives the bird a ‘puffed-up’ appearance. Many of them also shake constantly (called thermogensis) which increases their heat output by five times their normal amount. Many small birds must eat frequently to have enough energy to sustain this action. Keep your seed and suet feeders full of high-energy food to supplement their needs during this time of the year. Feeder birds are also more dependent on our feeders for a food source as their natural supply of food is very low in winter.

Q. What do robins eat and what types of feeders do they like?

A. Robins are not usually feeder birds. They like bugs and berries but will occasionally use a fruit feeder with apples or grapes. They will eat live mealworms on a tray or flat feeder as well.

Q. I am not seeing goldfinches this year. How do I attract them?

A. You might have goldfinches but you are not recognizing them. Goldfinches have lost their bright yellow coloring and look dull brown in the winter months. Make sure you always have fresh Nyjer thistle seed in a finch feeder with small holes or in a thistle sack. The goldfinches in my yard like the Droll Yankee yellow finch feeders. Goldfinches like to feed in a “flock” so make sure the feeder you choose has plenty of room.

Q. How do I get my kids interested in birding?

A. The first thing to do is attract the birds in your yard to a feeder. You can buy a feeder or build your own with your child. Purchase a beginning bird book or bird identification kit and keep track of the birds that come to your feeder. You and your child can learn what birds like and what type of feed attracts your favorite birds. Birding can be a lifelong hobby for your child.

Q. I received a new bluebird house as a gift. When should I put it up?

A. You can put it up immediately. During cold spells at the beginning of the year, birds may use the house for shelter to protect them from the winter weather. Late January to early February, the male takes the female around to various potential sites so that she may choose the best site – in her opinion. The pair will then begin to mate and before you know it, the female will be laying those beautiful light blue eggs. A reminder: bluebird houses need to face an open area and are best installed on a free-standing pole.

Q. What can I feed insect and fruit eating birds during the winter?

A. The most popular type of specialty food you can feed insect-eating birds during winter is suet. Try some of the many high-energy flavors of suet including squirrel-resistant suet plugs and suet cakes and special nuggets for bluebirds. Suet supplies much of the nourishment for birds that they would get from insects and bugs in warmer weather.

Q. What changes might I see at my feeders during this time of the year?

A. You’ll likely see a slightly different mix of birds at your feeders. At your suet feeders, you may see a greater variety of woodpeckers including the yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-headed woodpecker, pine siskins, and even goldfinches, though their trademark bright yellow plumage may not reappear until late winter. Look below your feeders to see an assortment of ground-feeding birds such as juncos, Hermit thrushes, towhees, and ‘LBB’s, or little brown birds such as fox sparrows, yellow-throated sparrows and chipping sparrows. Winter storms in the north may also bring some nice surprise avian guests at your feeders. Keep your bird identification guide handy.

Q. What is ‘heated water’?

A. Attract and help birds in winter by offering heated water, that is, thermostatically controlled heaters placed in your birdbath water. It’s a proven fact that offering water helps you attract 10 times more birds. This is especially true when water sources can be hard to find. All birds need water for winter and for bathing. Their feathers are hard to fluff out and insulate themselves if they become oily or matter. Several models of birdbath heaters activate only when the temperature of the water dips below freezing. They consume very little energy and insure that your birds have access to a dependable source of water. The birds will thank you.

Q. When should I put up a birdhouse?

A. You can put them up any time of the year but be sure that they’re in place by early February as that is when cavity-nesting birds may begin scouting around for a suitable place to build their nest for their mating season.

Q. Which woodpecker was that?

A. Many species of woodpeckers can be found throughout our area. To indentify which woodpecker you’re watching, look closely at the markings and colors on their head.

Downy Woodpecker – is the smallest North American Woodpecker at seven inches long. It has black and white markings on the wings, head and belly with a white streak down the center of the back. Only the males have a red patch on the back of their heads.

Hairy Woodpecker – looks similar to the Downy except is nine inches long.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker – is about 10 inches long and has ‘zebra bars’ on its back. The male has red coloring extending from the back of his head to the base of his bill. The female has red only on the back of her head. Both genders have a pinkish belly.

Northern Flicker – We have the yellow-shafted flicker in our area. The male has a black ‘mustache’ just behind the bill and yellow, spotted underparts. Flickers spend more time on the ground feeding than other woodpeckers.

Red-Headed Woodpecker – If you’re lucky enough to spot this woodpecker, its distinguishing markings are its solid red head, solid white bellies, solid black backs, and wings with large white patches.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker – Wintering in the southeast, this woodpecker sports black and white stripes running in a ‘Z’ formation on its head. The male has a red throat and the female has a white one.

Q. What are those cute little birds with the white bellies and pink bills that are savaging on the ground under my feeder?

A. They are Dark-eyed Juncos, which are also commonly referred to as ‘snow birds’. During the warmer months, they can be found in higher elevations such as the mountains in western North Carolina and other areas as far north as Canada. Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily seedeaters and prefer millet to sunflower seeds at our feeders. A great way to accommodate juncos is to put out a ground tray style feeder, which they’ll gladly frequent alongside one of your other backyard favorites – cardinals.

Q. Do any other birds besides Juncos eat millet?

A. Proso millet, another name for red and white millet, is a great feeding option for many of your winter visitors such as juncos, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, finches and other ground-feeding birds. Millet is a grass that is grown here in the states as well as in parts of Asia and Africa, where it is consumed as a nutritious food product.

Q. Why am I suddenly hearing so many owl calls at night?

A. If you are hearing a hooting sound at dawn, dusk or at night with a full moon, you are probably listening to the mating ritual of the Barred Owl or the Great Horned Owl. Unlike most birds that mate in the spring, owls mate early in winter. The incubation period is almost a month. When the babies are born, the longer nights of winter and bare landscape makes it easier for the adults to find prey to feed their offspring. When the young owlets begin to venture from their nest, spring is well under way and young animals will provide an increased food supply for the owls. So, listen for the “HOO-Hu-hu-hu-HOO-HOO” of a Great Horned Owl or the “Who! Who! Who cooks for you” from the Barred Owl, both common residents in our area. A large, cedar nesting box attached to a tree trunk may help attract Barred Owls to your yard.