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winter bird tips

Winter Birding Tips

Expert advice for spotting birds from your home and on the trail this winter

Meghan Murphy-Gill

With winter weather comes charming chickadees and woodpeckers, striking cardinals, and goldfinches that transform with the seasons. While temperatures may be low, the cold months are no time to pack away the binoculars and bird feeders. Winter can be just as exciting of a season to observe birds as the spring and summer, whether from a warm window perch or a snow-covered path. And you don’t need snowfall for great winter birding. In some places, birds from northern regions arrive in droves to wait out the winter. 

Winter Birding from the Great Indoors 
“Feeding birds is one of the best ways to connect with nature without having to go far away,” says Dr. Emma Greig, an ornithologist. Emma manages Project Feederwatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where amateur bird enthusiasts across the country can contribute to a data set by reporting on the birds that visit their feeders between November and April. This helps scientists better monitor and understand long-term bird patterns in the winter. The project also offers a helpful guide to bird feeders and feed for wintertime.

You can attract certain birds native to your region by selecting species-specific food and feeder, but to attract the largest variety of birds, Emma recommends hanging a suet block outside the window where you plan to do your winter birdwatching. Birds such as woodpeckers, warblers, kinglets, and even wrens will come to the feeder because the fat in the suet is a good source of energy in the colder months. “Even birds that don’t normally eat seeds will come and nibble from a suet block,” Emma says. 

“Another benefit [of a suet block feeder] is that you don’t end up with seeds everywhere,” Emma says. “They disappear to nothing. They’re really tidy.” 

To get the best view of the birds, place the feeder at least 3 feet from your window. Birds that build up speed as they land to eat will be less likely to injure themselves if them hit the window. 

If you live on the West Coast, consider leaving your hummingbird feeder out past fall. While most hummingbirds only stick around when blooming flowers provide a food source, “Anna’s hummingbirds are a special, exceptional species that really capitalizes on the fact that people put out feeders and leave them out,” says Emma, adding that it’s particularly exciting to see a hummingbird when snow is on the ground.
To keep birds well-watered, consider placing a heating device in your bird bath to keep the water from freezing. Just as in the summer, baths and feeders need regular cleaning to prevent the spread of disease among birds.
Tips for Winter Birding Outdoors 
It’s often easier to spot birds in the winter thanks to the lack of foliage. And contrary to old adage, birds of a feather don’t actually always flock together—except in the winter. “In the summer and spring […] they’re nesting and want to be in pairs,” Emma says. “But in the winter, there’s no need to be in pairs or be territorial so they can all get together.” In addition, birds that flock together benefit from more eyes on the ground, keeping watch for food and predators.

Larger groups of birds mean you have a greater chance of spotting them.

Robins, blue birds, and cedar waxwings all stick around in the winter, and they tend to forage together for berries from trees and bushes.

To find the best winter birding trails in your areas, visit the National Audubon Society. In addition, most states have a birdwatcher’s association, which can be a great resource for finding trails, whether you’re a beginner, expert birder, or something in between. You can also visit a nearby nature center for an in-person guide to local birds and where to find them. 

Before hitting the trails, pack: 

  • A good pair of binoculars 
  • A field guide or an app like the free Merlin ID app from Cornell’s Ornithology Lab
  • A pen and notebook to record what you’ve seen 

Whether you’re trekking through a snow-covered forest or slogging through muddy wetlands, always stick to hiking trails. Make sure you’re not venturing into areas designated for winter hunting. In addition, always be aware and respectful of the wildlife you may encounter, especially if you’re visiting a refuge meant to preserve and protect more than just birds. 

And don’t hesitate to share what you’ve spotted. Often, nature centers are delighted to hear what people have seen in the area, and they’ll collect that data for local fish and wildlife experts.