5 Tips for Winter Birding

Northern flicker in snow. Rob McKay/Shutterstock

Winter is coming quickly, and the change in seasons means a change in bird activity. While the chilliest months of the year might seem like the worst time to get out to watch birds, it actually provides an amazing opportunity to see birds more easily and to see seasonal visitors you might not get to watch at other times of the year. Layer up and grab your binoculars to take advantage of learning about new species and behaviors!

Want an additional boost? Here are five tips that will make winter birding even more interesting.

1. Make a master species list of winter birds.

Do your homework first so you can maximize every moment you spend out in the winter chill. Grab a birding field guide and a notebook, and jot down the name of every bird species that either resides year-round in your area or winters there. The list is likely to be quite long, and you might be surprised at some of the species that hang out nearby during the winter months.

If you want to be extra thorough, scour eBird and other resources to see what species have been spotted over the years during the winter where you live. There could be species not listed in your field guide that might turn up during irruption years, that is, when a species temporarily moves into a region it doesn’t normally inhabit.

This exercise may take you some time, but you'll learn new identification skills, know what birds to expect and know which ones are surprise visitors.

2. Set out bird feeders.

Food is always a necessity for birds, and they may seek out your backyard if you provide healthy snacks for them. Offer a mix of high-fat foods, such as black oil sunflower seed, thistle seed, peanuts and suet.

In winter, use covered bird feeders to keep out rain and snow, and place the feeder in an area that won't be subject to the worst of winter weather, such as wind. Placing a feeder relatively close to brush will provide additional shelter and quick escape routes from danger for the birds.

Remember bird feeders must be kept clean to prevent the spread of disease, so maintaining them beyond just refilling food is important for the health of your feathered friends. Also take note that bird feeders can attract unintended visitors, from bears and squirrels that will want their turn at the seeds, to raptors that will relish an opportunity to snag an easy meal of an unwary pigeon. Use bird feeders with care and diligence.

American goldfinch on heated birdbath in winter
An American goldfinch enjoys a heated birdbath on a snowy winter day. Al Mueller/Shutterstock

3. Provide a reliable water source.

Water is as much a necessity in winter as any other time of year. Keep a dish or bird bath clear of ice, or consider using a bird bath warmer. Having a predictable place to grab a drink will attract birds in the same way as having a predictable snack cart.

4. Head out to a birding sanctuary.

Go beyond your backyard to see some of the more interesting species that would never visit an urban area. Check out local preserves, Audubon sanctuaries and wildlife refuges to spot various species of water birds, raptors and other birds that shy away from human populations.

5. Create a log book for species and behaviors.

Because birds are so much more visible during winter, thanks to a lack of leaf cover, it's a perfect time to notice aspects of their behavior. Improve your naturalist skills by writing down what the birds are doing. Over time, you may discover patterns you never noticed before, unravel mysteries or surprising routines, or be pulled into a dramatic avian soap opera.

At the end of the winter, scan through your notes and be amazed at all you've witnessed and learned over the last few months!

Bonus tip: Keep your distance.

Birds live on a razor-thin edge of starvation and cold during winter. Even birds that look like round puffballs of warmth are actually mostly feathers and air, puffed up in an effort to maintain their body temperature. Birds must take every opportunity to gain food and conserve energy during these difficult months. So if you're watching wild birds either foraging or at rest, be sure to keep your distance and let them go about their business undisturbed. This will increase your odds of getting to see them again tomorrow.