Guests of the Season

It’s hard to believe that any animal would find refuge in Michigan during winter, but for some northern birds, this is their “south.”

Welcoming winter backyard birds

While the colorful orioles and hummingbirds are long gone, each winter brings new migrant birds to backyard feeders. It’s hard to believe that any animal would find refuge in Michigan during winter, but for some northern birds, this is their “south.” Temperatures impact a bird’s chances of survival, but often it is food resources that are the true driver in migratory movements.

The arrival of dark-eyed juncos is one of the first signs of winter. Large flocks migrate from northern Canada throughout much of North America to overwinter. These dark-gray and white sparrows often hop on the ground instead of walking. There they forage for food by pecking and scratching the leaf litter, especially underneath birdfeeders.

American tree sparrows arrive a bit later than the juncos but have very similar behaviors. Despite their name, these birds prefer foraging on the ground for seeds. They will also use their wings to beat the seeds off the grass. The bright rusty caps, two-toned bill and central breast spot help distinguish this winter resident from other sparrows.

Purple finches are found year-round in the Great Lakes region, but are more common in winter months. Often confused with common house finches, male purple finches have a more intense raspberry color and the females have a white eye stripe. Black oil sunflower seeds are a fan favorite of the purple finch, along with many other winter regulars such as cardinals, chickadees and titmice. Not every year is a good year to see purple finches. When food is plentiful up north, they may not migrate further south.

The pine siskin is another finch that may or may not migrate south, depending on winter food availability. Similar in size to an American goldfinch, pine siskins have brown streaks and a splash of yellow on the tail and wings. These birds form highly nomadic flocks that travel wherever there is food. Aptly named, their petite bill is used to pry seeds from pines and other conifers. When temperatures drop, pine siskins are able to store a large amount of seeds in their crop, a pouch-like part of the esophagus, to get them through a cold night.

Winter is coming, and just like the first snowflakes are a ritual of the changing season, so too are the shift in winter backyard birds. Keep an eye out for these winter visitors in your backyard.


Attracting Winter Birds

  • Place feeders within 3 feet of a window. This enables great views from inside and also helps to prevent deadly window kills.
  • Favorite bird foods include black oil sunflower seeds, split peanuts, thistle (finches only) and suet. Seed mixes are often sold in stores, but have less desirable fillers such as millet and corn.
  • Plant shrubs or leave a brush pile near your feeding station to provide shelter from the elements and potential predators.
  • Provide water in a heated bird bath. This can be especially important for birds and other wildlife when temperatures are below freezing and natural water sources freeze.
  • Make sure that bird food is inaccessible to deer. Feeding deer is illegal in the Lower Peninsula and parts of the Upper Peninsula to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease. This lethal disease is spread between deer by any bodily fluid, including saliva. There are many modifications that can be made to a bird feeding station to keep both the birds and deer safe.


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