Updated: Feb 6
It’s hard for kids to get outside and enjoy nature during New England winters. Freezing weather and early sunsets have them spending less time exploring outdoors, and more time cooped up by the TV. So we put together this Northeast Winter Birdwatching Guide as a fun family activity that helps kids stay curious about their local ecosystems, while staying cozy indoors!
This guide shows you how to identify the most common types of birds that stick around during winter in New England. We also included each bird’s favorite foods to help attract them to your yard. While kids learn more about the birds in their neighborhood, they’ll be helping them stay warm and full during months when their food sources are scarce. Try to spot them all before spring!
NORTHEAST WINTER BIRDWATCHING GUIDE
These cute little guys are hard to spot in the snow because of their size and colors. But they'll let you know they're around with their sweet "chick-a-dee!" calls. Look for their distinctive "black caps," and the white stripe that runs across the middle of their face. And don't forget their white and yellow bellies!
Favorite foods: Insects, berries, and seeds - sunflower seeds in particular! But if you really want to help them out, give them a good source of protein, since insects are scarce in the winter.
How to attract: If you're feeling brave, put some suet or animal fat in your feeder and watch these guys flock in!
Fun fact: Chickadees build their nests in tiny holes in trees where bark has rotted away, or in holes drilled by woodpeckers.
Their iconic brick-red colors and whistle-y song makes the northern cardinal one of New England's favorite birds to spot during winter. Males, like the one on the right in the picture above, are bright red, while females are muted shades of red, yellow, gray and blue.
Favorite food: Sunflower seeds! If you put out any kind of bird feeder with sunflower seeds in it, chances are you'll be a cardinal's best friend in no time. Other types of seeds and berries are welcome too.
How to attract: Fill any kind of hanging feeder with sunflower seeds. Or, you can make your own by poking a perching stick through an empty soda bottle or milk jug, fill it with seeds, and cut a hole for cardinals to eat from.
Fun fact: Male and female cardinals attract each other with a song and a dance! When courting, they sing to each other while swaying back and forth with their heads held high.
RED & WHITE-BREASTED NUTCHATCHES
The white stripe across its head makes the red-breasted nuthatch look a little like a black-capped chickadee, doesn't it? The difference is in the name: its red belly makes it stand apart from chickadees, as well as its slightly larger beak. The white-breasted nuthatch, however, stands out on its own. There is only white around its eyes, parted by a dark stripe running up and down the middle of its head.
Favorite foods: Any kinds of seeds you have, but it especially loves conifer tree seeds found in pinecones.
How to attract: Nuthatches like to run up and down tree trunks to eat insects, and seeds from pinecones that hang off branches. You can make the perfect nuthatch snack simply by rolling a pinecone in peanut butter, sticking seeds to it, and hanging it on a branch with some twine.
Fun fact: Nuthatches are known for being generally unafraid of human interaction. If you're lucky, one might even approach you if you're patient!
Dark-eyed juncos are abundantly common throughout all seasons in northeastern and western regions of the US. Listen for its peculiar "ticking" call, and look for its striking pinkish beak against its dark-grey head.
Favorite foods: Juncos love proso millet, cracked corn, and sunflower seeds above all else during winter months.
How to attract: Dark-eyed juncos prefer to eat on the ground. Sprinkle the seeds listed above on your lawn, or make little feeders from emptied orange halves as described above.
Fun fact: Junco colors vary wildly among different populations in different parts of the country. So much so, they were once all thought to be different species!
One of the most common birds in the world, thanks to their ability to thrive in man-altered environments. The mourning dove gets its name from its famously sad-sounding cooing calls. You can identify these birds by their thick pinkish-brown bellies and tiny heads.
Favorite foods: 99% of a mourning dove's diet is made up of seeds, cultivated grains, and grasses. They also treat themselves to peanuts from time to time.
How to attract: Mourning doves like to feed on the ground, so set up feeders filled with grains and seeds, or sprinkle them on your lawn. They also like to feed on seeds that fall from hanging feeders. You can't go wrong with these guys.
Fun fact: Mourning Doves raise up to six broods every year - that's more than any other native bird!
If you've ever heard a bird call that goes "peter-peter-peter!", you've heard a tufted titmouse! You can recognize these birds from their small blue crest on their head, pale-blue wings and white underbelly.
Favorite foods: Sunflower seeds! And only one at a time, thank you very much!
How to attract: Titmice like to eat from branches, so any kind of hanging feeder filled with seeds will do.
Fun fact: Tufted titmice weren't always common in the northeast. But in recent years, thanks to more people hanging birdfeeders in their yards, titmice have been expanding up the eastern coast, and have been sighted as north as Maine!
The beautiful blue jay is one of New England's favorite birds to spot during winter. It's loud calls, vibrant colors and obnoxious personality make this a hard bird to miss in the winter.
Favorite foods: Absolutely anything and everything. Vegetables, nuts, fruits, grains, seeds, insects, frogs, small rodents - you name it. If you have absolutely anything edible in your yard, there's a good chance a blue jay will swoop in soon.
How to attract: Any kind of feeder, filled with any kind of food will attract a blue jay. In fact, they might cause trouble by driving away all other birds from your feeders, and hogging them for themselves!
Fun fact: Not all blue jays stay in the northeast for the winter. Some migrate south, and some choose not to. Scientists still don't know why different jays choose to stay or migrate!
DOWNY & HAIRY WOODPECKERS
Downy and hairy woodpeckers are some of the most difficult to find. Look for them climbing tall tree trunks in search of food - the distinct red patch on the backs of their heads gives them away! Listen for the fast-paced pecking sound against tree bark, like knocking on wood.
Favorite food: Insects! The vast majority of downy and hairy woodpecker diets are made up of insects like beetles, caterpillars, and larvae, which they find hiding in trees by pecking away at tree bark.
How to attract: Woodpeckers are mostly carnivores, so the best way to attract them is to set up a feeder filled with suet or animal fat. A simple way to do this is to roll a pinecone in leftover animal fat or suet, and tie it to the trunk of a tree. Or, place suet or animal fat in a mesh bag, and hang it against a tree with some twine.
Fun fact: Can you tell these two species apart? Don't worry, most can't. In fact, they're mistaken for the other so much, their names have become somewhat interchangeable! But while they have remarkably similar colors and patterns, the downy woodpecker is smaller, and has a tiny beak compared to the hairy woodpecker.
OUR SCIENTISTS NEED YOUR HELP!
Help your kids take lots of photos of any birds that stop by, and have them write down everything they observe in a notebook. What kind of bird is it? What colors are they? Send your findings to the Audubon Society at ebird.org to help scientists protect bird populations in your neighborhood.