This past week was an exciting one here in Tampa. After months of oppressive heat and humidity, the first cold front of the season arrived! Muggy and hot one day, clear and crisp the next – everyone around me opened their windows at last and breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, that same day in Ohio, my dad turned on his furnace for the first time. Changes in season vary from place to place, as do our behaviors in response. Birds are the same; each season brings different activities for the backyard birds you know and love. Here are some bird behaviors to look for as summer gives way to winter.
Different Birds and Different Looks
Of course, the most obvious change each season is the different visitors you’ll have in your backyard. We live on a lake, so this is the time I start to keep an eye out for our “winter ducks” – the blue-winged teals, northern shovelers, and ring-necked ducks (among others) that appear down south come winter. At my feeders, palm warblers are returning to dining on seeds after a summer spent eating insects. Up north, grosbeaks and crossbills return from their Arctic breeding grounds.
Other visitors remain the same, but have a different look. Your finch feeders will still be busy, but the bright-colored goldfinches have changed their feathers for a safer but drab winter look.
Changes in Diet
One reason bird behaviors change with the weather has to do with food. Many songbirds spend the warmer months chowing down on bugs. These high-protein snacks give them the energy they need to mate, built nests, and raise their young. This is why many of them seem to disappear from your feeders when the weather is hot. In winter, insects are less readily available, so birds switch to seeds. They find them in the woods, of course, but feeders provide much easier access.
Woodpeckers are especially affected by this change, since many of the insects they’re used to finding in trees are no longer available. Put out a suet block that includes mealworms or high-protein nuts and woodpeckers will flock to it.
Mixed Flocks and Family Groups
Many eyes are better than one set, both for finding food and avoiding predators. During the harder months, birds regularly group themselves together in larger mixed flocks – a gathering of birds with similar needs. These will vary by area, but in areas with chickadees, they’re usually the leaders of the flocks. Other members include nuthatches and warblers. Backyard birders can benefit from these bird behaviors, because a large number of birds may descend on your yard all at once.
In Florida, winter is not only a cooler time, but also the dry season. That means wading birds like herons and egrets also gather in larger numbers as their watering holes dry up. This can lead to spectacular agglomerations of these large and beautiful birds.
Winter is also a time for some birds to finish training their young, since not all birds immediately leave their family group. My backyard is often home to a family of Hairy Woodpeckers all winter long, as last season’s family group grows up and learns to fend for themselves.
These are just some of ways that bird behaviors change in the colder months. Keep your eyes open – you’ll be surprised by what you might see!