Feeding and watching wild birds at a feeding station is one of the most pleasant ways of spending time during Nebraska’s long and dreary winter period. It has become a multimillion-dollar business, and recreational bird-feeding now involves almost one-third of North Americans, or about the combined total of Americans regularly engaged in hunting and fishing. Not only does it provide unlimited entertainment, but can be a wonderful way to learn to identify many of our native birds, often closer than would be possible by simply trying to observe them in the wild.
Of Nebraska’s roughly 350 species of regularly occurring birds, about 100 are likely to be seen during the winter period. The most recent Nebraska winter survey available, the 2012 Great Backyard Bird Count, tallied 104 species. This count totaled over 114,000 birds, from more than 800 locations in Nebraska. Besides typical bird-feeder species, 21 species of ducks, geese and swans and 15 species of raptors were also reported. However, nearly half of the species observed were ones that might be seen at or at least near a typical urban or suburban Nebraska backyard feeding station. Among the typical bird-feeder species seen, the 11 most abundant, in descending sequence, were American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco, European starling, house sparrow, American robin, rock pigeon, house finch, northern cardinal, American tree sparrow, American crow and black-capped chickadee.
In a comprehensive nationwide study of bird species likely to be seen at North American feeding stations, Erica Dunn and Dianne Tessaglia-Hymes found that about 90 species regularly visit bird feeders and another 180 are casual visitors. Of the 90 that they identified as “regulars,” about 40 Nebraska species are common during winter. This list excludes various raptors that are attracted to prey at feeders and several game birds such as the ring-necked pheasant, northern bobwhite and wild turkey that sometimes are attracted to farmyards. The list includes three doves and pigeons, five woodpeckers and 33 true songbirds. The majority of these species are basically seedeaters, but some are omnivore-scavengers (e.g., crow, jay, magpie, starling), some are attracted to high-protein foods such as suet (woodpeckers, brown creeper, kinglets) and a few are adapted to fruit or berry eating during winter (waxwing, robin, bluebirds).
In a study that I performed in the 1990s and that analyzed historic Christmas Bird Count data, I compared more than 50 years of counts from the Lincoln, Neb., area with comparable counts from Scottsbluff. This study revealed some substantial differences in species composition among birds having eastern versus western geographic affinities across the 400-mile east-west distance that separates the two cities. Eleven species with largely eastern geographic affinities were present during the Lincoln counts but were lacking from Scottsbluff’s, while two species (mountain chickadee and evening grosbeak) were observed only at Scottsbuff. The Eurasian collared-dove was not seen at either location until later; this self-introduced and rapidly expanding species first appeared in Nebraska during the late 1990s and has since been reported from all of the state’s 93 counties. Another expanding species, the house finch, has long had a resident population in western Nebraska but did not reach the Lincoln-Omaha area until the late 1980s. House finches are still increasing nationally and now often equal or exceed house sparrows at bird feeders, whereas the house sparrow has been in a slow but persistent national decline for several decades.
Each of the species listed in the table has a variable degree of association with bird feeders, and in some cases, such as with the northern cardinal, it is likely that the species’ northern and westward range expansion in the state has been significantly aided by bird-feeding activities. Additionally, winters have become significantly milder since the 1960s across the Great Plains, which has made overwintering survival less stressful for many species, allowing them to winter at more northerly latitudes (Johnsgard and Shane, 2009).
Of the three doves and pigeons listed, the introduced rock pigeon is mostly a bird associated with barnyards, elevators or other places where waste grain is likely to be found, and until the 1960s was ignored by the National Audubon Society when compiling Christmas Count data. During the 2011–12 counts, it was seen in all 15 count locations, with a total of about 4,700 birds tallied, while the Eurasian collared dove was seen in 14 locations, with 811 birds tallied. Mourning doves tend to leave Nebraska during severe winters, but during the 2011–12 counts, nearly 400 were seen in nine locations. They come readily to feeders and are especially fond of smaller items, such as cracked corn, millet, safflower seed and hulled sunflower seeds.
Of the five woodpeckers, two (yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-bellied woodpecker) are largely confined to eastern parts of the state, although the red-bellied woodpecker has been slowly working its way west along the Platte and other east-west river systems. All the woodpeckers other than sapsuckers will at times take corn, sunflower seeds and other plant seeds, but suet and fat-rich “bird-puddings” are the favorite foods of all. Flickers are attracted to suet in winter and will sometimes take larger seeds such as corn. Red-bellied woodpeckers cache much of the food that they collect at feeders; the other species tend to consume it as they find it. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, downy woodpeckers were seen in the greatest numbers, followed by northern flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.
The corvids (jays, crows and magpies) are highly intelligent and highly observant birds. Jays are often the first to arrive and investigate whenever a fresh supply of food is put out, and crows have an uncanny ability to show up almost immediately after any poultry or other meat wastes are made available. Jays often appear in small groups of four or five birds, presumably family groups, and are able to keep most other birds away from the food, with the exception of large woodpeckers and crows. Crows and magpies also most often tend to arrive in pairs or up to four birds; magpies are especially prone to cache most of what they find. A blue jay may stuff 20 or more sunflower seeds into its gullet before flying off to cache them. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, American crows were most often seen, followed by blue jays and magpies. The West Nile epidemic of 2002–03 had long-term disastrous effects on the corvids. Magpie numbers still remain very low, and blue jays are only slowly recovering.
Among the most popular of all feeder birds are chickadees, titmice and nuthatches; all are notably “perky” and will tolerate close-range observations during the short times it takes for one to arrive, pick up a single seed and then fly off to hide it somewhere nearby. Sunflower seeds are favorite foods of all species, although suet is also highly favored by nuthatches. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, the most frequently seen members of this group were black-capped chickadees, followed by white-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice and pygmy nuthatches.
Other suet-loving and bird-pudding species include the kinglets, wrens and brown creeper. Of the two kinglets, the golden-crowned is much more likely to overwinter in Nebraska than is the ruby-crowned, but the latter is more likely to show up at feeders, especially if suet-based or peanut-butter mixes (bird-puddings) are available. Kinglets are the smallest of Nebraska’s wintering birds, weighing about six grams, or only twice the weight of our hummingbirds. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, the most frequently seen birds of this group were golden-crowned kinglets, followed by brown creepers and Carolina wrens. A very few winter wrens, marsh wrens and ruby-crowned kinglets were also reported.
Robins, bluebirds and cedar waxwings are attracted to feeders with dried fruits and, in the case of the waxwing, red cedar and mountain ash berries. All of these species are highly mobile during winter and often leave the state in severe winters. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, the most frequently seen species of this group were American robins, followed by cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds and mountain bluebirds.
Nearly all of the seed-eating sparrow-like birds are attracted to feeders. However, the ground-foraging sparrows such as American tree sparrows, towhees and some grassland sparrows are often reluctant to land on elevated platforms and are much more likely scratch about on the ground below a feeder than fly up to it. Of the two Nebraska towhees, only the spotted is prone to overwinter, and only in southeastern Nebraska. Of the typical sparrows, the American tree sparrow is probably the most abundant in winter, but, like the Harris’s sparrow, it is more likely to be found in rural locations than in cities. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Bird Counts, the most frequently seen birds of this group were American tree sparrows, followed by dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, Harris’s sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and a few other rarely overwintering sparrows.
Some species of the blackbird family (icterids) are common at winter feeders, such as grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds, but these birds typically depart Nebraska well before the coldest months. Until then, these gregarious, greedy and often noisy birds tend to be unpopular with feeder watchers, but their boisterous encounters and other antics are fascinating to watch.
Among the most colorful and unpredictable birds to appear at winter feeders are the finches. Although the American goldfinch and house finch are essentially sedentary and common at feeders statewide, other finches breed in the northern coniferous forests. These appear in Nebraska only occasionally, their movements closely associated with the supply of tree seeds that they largely depend upon. The small-beaked goldfinches and pine siskins, however, eat tiny seeds such as those of thistles (goldfinches) and alders (siskins) and are highly attracted to feeders providing niger seeds. The more northern finches include the red- and white-winged crossbills, purple finch, pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak and common redpoll. During the 2011–12 Nebraska Christmas Counts, the most frequently seen finches were American goldfinches, followed by house finches, pine siskins, purple finches and common redpolls. The winter of 2012–13 is proving to be a banner year for seeing northern finches, judging from many late-fall observations of crossbills.
Dunn, E. and D. Tessaglia-Hymes. “Birds at Your Feeder.” New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.
Johnsgard, Paul A. “A Half Century of Christmas Bird Counts at Lincoln and Scottsbluff, Nebraska.” “Nebraska Bird Review” 66:74–84 (1998). http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/.
Johnsgard, Paul A. “The Feathers of Winter.” Prairie Fire, December 2011, pp. 17–20.
Johnsgard, Paul A., and T. Shane. “Four Decades of Christmas Bird Counts in the Great Plains: Ornithological Evidence of a Changing Climate.” Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Digital Commons, 2009. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/biosciornithology/46/.
Image Credits: Paul A. Johnsgard