Jan 5, 2022 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2021

10 Things for a Backyard Bird Watcher to Do in Winter

From reading a bird book to planning next spring's garden, here are 10 things bird watchers can do to spice up the winter season no matter where you live.

Winter has arrived in North America, and no matter where you are, this season holds changes for birds and bird watchers. Several of my past winter "Top Ten" columns in this magazine have covered things you could do for the birds in your backyard. Now I'm going to cover things you can do for yourself. It might be to spice up your bird watching, to fight the winter blahs, or just for the heck of it. Whatever your reason, here's hoping your winter is pleasant and full of birds.

1. Read a book. There are all kinds of bird books—new and classic—including field guides, bird-finding guides, species profiles, travelogues, personal accounts, and even fiction! Birder murder mysteries! A quick search through your local library or bookstore, or in an online bookstore, will reveal a variety of titles available for your reading pleasure. Classics include Wild America, by Roger Tory Peterson and James Peterson, or Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds, or anything by Julie Zickefoose. Her Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay is sure to please backyard bird enthusiasts. When the nights are long, reading about birds is almost as good as actually watching them.

2. Plan next spring's garden. Research the native plant species in your region. Native plants are (usually) more appealing to wild birds, because they are familiar to them—and also to the insects birds eat. Audubon offers a useful and easy-to-use database of native plants searchable by zip code at audubon.org/nativeplants. You can also find inspiration at your local library. There are perhaps more books about gardening than there are books about birds. Three good resources are Creating Your Backyard Bird Garden by David Donnelly (available at redstartbirding.com), Natural Gardening for Birds by Julie Zickefoose, and Doug Talamy's Bringing Nature Home. All three will be helpful and inspiring in making your landscape more attractive to birds. Plan now; plant in spring.

3. Make Zick Dough. Birds find it to be irresistible. Sure, you can offer commercial suet cakes instead, but if you make your own, you know exactly the ingredients. Also, this column is about things for you to do in winter. Making Zick Dough is much more fun than going shopping for commercial suet cakes!

4. Get your binoculars ready. The binoculars I use most are the ones that live next to the living room and kitchen windows. If your binoculars are in their carrying case in a closet or drawer, they're not serving you well, and you're probably missing out on some surprising backyard visitors. You don't need the best in birding optics for backyard use, but you do need binoculars to be close at hand when something interesting stops by your yard. By the way, binoculars make great gifts!

5. Start a new yard list! This might be my favorite winter bird watching activity: starting the new year list for our farm. I have never spent a whole year avidly looking to maximize the list, but I sure do love starting a new year off fresh with no birds on the list. And, of course, there's always the challenge of what the first bird of the new year will be. Some years it's a starling or a cardinal, but one year it was a rusty blackbird, which was very exciting. So, come the morning of January 1, 2022, be sure to note the first bird you see in your yard. Then keep listing!

6. Watch the weather's effect on birds. What did we do before we had The Weather Channel, and weather apps on our phones? I guess we looked at the sky and prognosticated. Today we can get instant updates on the weather and guess how it will affect the birds. Before a big storm hits, watch how the birds behave differently—feeding actively and finding shelter long before the storm arrives. Here in Ohio we know the first major cold front will bring juncos and white-crowned sparrows to our feeders. Winter is a fantastic time for watching weather and birds together.

7. Get online and meet other backyard bird watchers. Social media has been a boon for folks like us. Most states have their own Facebook groups for bird watchers, but there are groups specifically for backyard bird watchers, too. For example, there is a Facebook group called Ohio Backyard Birding. Search Facebook to see if your state or province has such a group. And, of course, you are cordially invited to join this publication's very own Facebook group: Watching Backyard Birds Forum. It's a place to share our common love for backyard birds—across the continent. Many of these sites become virtual bird clubs by the nature and degree of communication among the participants.

8. Participate in a project. You probably know about Project FeederWatch from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (birds.cornell.edu/pfw). It runs November through April, and encourages regular reporting about the birds that visit your feeder, with your observations submitted online. There is a fee to participate, but it is genuine citizen science. There are lots of other winter bird projects available to backyard bird watchers. Many states, counties, and bird clubs carry out midwinter bird surveys that include backyard observations. There's also The National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, and if you live within a designated count circle, you can participate without leaving home! For more information, see audubon.org/bird/cbc. If nothing else, you can keep a journal of your winter bird sightings at your feeding station. Record how the mix of birds changes from week to week, how severe weather increases the activity at your feeders, or simply how many cardinals or jays are feeding at any one time.

9. Get out of the house! Venture beyond the backyard! Even before the isolation of the pandemic, I know I get stir crazy on winter weekends. I can't stand being cooped up inside watching the short daylight hours slip away. So I'm usually the first one in our family to suggest an "adventure" as we call it. This is our pseudonym for a birding trip. For us a winter bird outing means driving along the Ohio River looking for bald eagles and waterfowl. Or we might head up the highway to a huge reclaimed strip mine where rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, and short-eared owls can be found on cold winter days. When you get antsy, don't let wintry weather keep you indoors. Plan an adventure to your nearby dam, dump, sewage treatment plant, or some other special winter birding spot. Be adventurous!

10. Migrate. If all else fails, you can do what the birds do: migrate south to a warmer location. Of course, take necessary precautions to protect your health, but the act of planning a winter getaway can help your mental health. Enjoy different backyard bird species in a different region. There's something so wonderful about going from snow boots and juncos to sand between your toes and sanderlings. It's amazing how a week or so in some sunny clime can make the winter blahs disappear. And it's easier to get through a rough time (cold weather, lack of sunshine, more isolation than usual) when you have something fun and different to look forward to.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021