Winter Birds in the Backyard

Purple Finch in Winter

Sandy Hill / Flickr

Novice backyard birders often assume that there are no birds around to enjoy during the coldest months, and may even put feeders and baths away to wait until spring. In fact, there are many beautiful winter birds that may normally be found only in far northern habitats but readily visit backyards when the snow flies, along with familiar year-round residents. Backyards can be essential for winter birds and provide necessary food and water when natural resources are at their scarcest.

Why Backyards Matter to Winter Birds

In winter, deep snow and ice can bury foods just when birds need more calories to keep warm through bitter cold. At the same time, water is locked into frozen ice so birds cannot easily drink. Dropping temperatures can make birds slower and more vulnerable to illness or predators, and fallen leaves offer less protection to keep winter birds safe. Fortunately, a bird-friendly yard can provide for all of a bird's needs even during the coldest months.

  • Food: When insects are dead or inaccessible to feeding birds, nectar-producing flowers are long gone and seed supplies are exhausted, winter backyards can be a vital food source. Higher calorie foods such as suet, peanut butter, and nuts are ideal for feeding winter birds and will attract more species to the backyard.
  • Water: While snow and ice are both water, frozen water is less helpful to birds because they must expend energy to melt it to drink. Even if birds eat snow directly, their bodies must generate more heat to metabolize that snow and overcome the chill. A heated bird bath can be critical, and birds will quickly find and flock to such an easy, convenient, liquid water source in winter.
  • Shelter: Evergreen trees provide great shelter for winter birds, but in areas where deciduous trees have lost their leaves, not as much shelter may be available. Birds can take refuge in hollow trees, but those hideaways may be few and far between. Backyards that offer winter bird shelters such as dense brush piles, roost boxes or year-round birdhouses will attract more visitors.

Top 40 Winter Backyard Birds (U.S. and Canada)

The exact species of winter backyard birds vary depending on range, geography, and habitat. These 40 species are those most likely to be found in snowy backyards throughout the United States and Canada. Some are common backyard birds year-round and others are only winter visitors. Still other species have regular irruptions and may be common one year and absent the next.

These are not the only backyard birds that might appear in winter, but they are quite common within their respective ranges. If a backyard meets their needs, they are likely to be winter visitors.

Where Other Birds Go

For many birders, their favorite species - such as tanagers, hummingbirds, warblers or Orioles - are conspicuously absent in winter. These and many other birds are migratory, and in winter they travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to milder climates or rich tropical regions that can support many birds with ease. While the journey can be difficult and migrating birds face many threats along the way, these birds will return in the spring to revisit their breeding grounds and raise their next generation. We may miss them in winter, but even when the snow flies, many great birds are still flying around the backyard!