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Identify winter birds at the backyard feeder

Although it is unnecessary to feed birds in the winter, we enjoy watching them and noticing how different species have developed different habits.

The most numerous is the 6-inch house sparrow (Passer domesticus) dominating the tube feeder. The only invasive species at the feeder, it is aggressive during nesting and will kill fledglings.

Similar in size are the house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), native songbirds that remain in our area year-round. Males sport a rosy pink on their head, throat and abdomen with females a dull brown, but often showing limited rose coloration.

The 4-to-5-inch black capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) have a solid black “cap” and “bib”‘ with white cheeks. They fly to the feeder, choose a seed and fly to the nearest tree branch to enjoy their meal. Because of this unique behavior, they expend more energy (calories) than birds who sit on the perch to feed.

The 5- to 6-inch Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are primarily ground feeders. With slate-gray backs and white abdomens, this snowbird thrives on cold weather and is the only bird to visit the feeder in the winter and return north in spring.

Occasionally a 6-inch tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) will visit. Easily identified by the pointed crest on their head, both species have grey backs, rust colored sides and white abdomens.

Another native species, the 11- to 12-inch blue jay is noisy and aggressive and will cause other birds to leave. Hard to miss is the bright red 7- to 9-inch northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) searching in the grass for uneaten seeds.

Some birds hop, but the 12-inch mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) walks under the feeders searching for seeds.

The 5- to 6-inch white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) climbs up and down trees headfirst. This species has a black cap, a slate grey back and white abdomen. This unique habit of the nuthatch is easily identifiable if watching just beyond the feeders to a close tree.

The suet cage often finds a 6-inch downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) hanging by his toes, enjoying a rich supply of seed and fat to sustain him. The male has a streak of red behind his head, unlike the female, yet both are black and white, with black spotted wings.

Other visitors who come without an invitation are rabbits, chipmunks and the neighborhood squirrel. Often perched in a nearby tree is the hawk looking for a quick meal.

It is essential for feeders to be cleaned to eliminate any viruses or bacteria from uneaten seed. Details on proper cleaning are at http://go.osu.edu/cleanfeeders.

From spring to fall, I enjoy the hummingbirds in my pollinator garden. What a wonderful way to enjoy a very busy backyard. To view bird species specific to Ohio, go to http://go.osu.edu/ourohiobirds.

Kane Shipka is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist with the Ohio State University Mahoning County Extension Office.

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