Common Backyard Birds: Western PA
As many of you know, I’ve recently taken up birding as a hobby. Though I have very little experience (my first “birding trip” ever is in April), I have gained a lot of knowledge about the birds in my backyard. I’m lucky enough to have the perfect setting to attract quite a few birds to our area daily. If you’ve never had the same luck or if you’ve never really paid much attention to your avian visitors, here’s a little information about a few of the most common birds in this area (as well as a few pictures I took). Hopefully, it will stick in your head as spring approaches. Maybe you can spot or attract someone new!
Everyone knows what a Blue Jay looks like. Here’s what I’ve learned about these intelligent birds: they absolutely love peanuts. Every other morning, I put a handful of shelled peanuts (always unsalted) in a tray feeder, and the blue jays come in droves. They pick up the peanuts one at a time and carry them back to a tree to peck them open. I find that the blue jays actually wait for me each morning now. They sit in the trees, kaw-ing away, until I come out with their food. Although they aren’t the nicest birds (they can be very aggressive), they are quite beautiful to watch.
The Northern Cardinal is bird that is the easiest to spot thanks to its bright red feathers. But here is a fact that I bet many of you don’t know: the female cardinal is actually brown, with only a hint of red. Both the male and the female share the characteristic orange beak, and the males have a tuft on the top of their heads. You will often see males chasing one another (they are highly territorial). If you want to attract cardinals to your yard, try sunflower seeds – although they seem to really eat anything.
CHICKADEE (Black-capped and Carolina)
Black-capped Chickadees and Carolina Chickadees are very difficult to differentiate. I haven’t mastered the ability to tell them apart, but if you’re interested you can check out the info here: Cornell Chickadees. For our purposes here, they are practically the same bird. They will be some of the tiniest birds in your yard. They often come to feeders in pairs – one acting as lookout for the other. They come to the feeder, take a seed, and fly off to cache it somewhere until they need it. They are fast, but quite bold. They will often fly very close to people, giving you a really good look. Supposedly, if you stand in your yard holding food for a long enough period of time, they are likely to take seeds from your hand.
SPARROW (House and Song)
Everyone knows the sparrow. The majority of sparrows around here are House Sparrows (actually finches, not sparrows, despite the name). House Sparrows are a non-native bird that was introduced from England. They have become quite invasive and can be found in large flocks throughout the country. They like to live in shrubs and bushes, and although they often eat off the ground, they will come to feeders, as well. The male has a distinct black bib on his throat, while the female is more plain and brown.
Although there are many types of sparrows, the other most common sparrow around these parts seems to be the Song Sparrow. As its name would suggest, the Song Sparrow is a great singer. Males and females look the same; both have a heavily streaked breast with a central dark spot in the center.They, like the House Sparrow, seem to eat any kind of seed.
I think people often confuse the Tufted Titmouse with the bluebird. The titmouse is a lighter shade of blue – almost a grey. They can have a small reddish/brown patch under their wings. They also – as their name suggests – have a tuft on the top of their head (like a cardinal). Tufted Titmouses (titmice?) eat pretty much anything I put out – from mealworms to suet. They move quickly, much like the chickadees, and I often see them in pairs or small groups.
This is another non-native bird introduced from England. Because it takes over the nests of other birds, its population has exploded. They often mob feeders, and they tend to move around in large groups. It’s a shame that the bird is so invasive and annoying; it’s quite beautiful. In winter, white spots cover it’s shiny, black body. In summer, spots are only faintly seen on its wings. Another characteristic of the European Starling is its yellow beak. I’ve seen the starlings with groups of other black birds, like red-wings and cowbirds. They like suet a lot, but they will eat anything (and everything) you put out.
If you see a pop of yellow in your yard, you are most likely dealing with a goldfinch. Some people think that the goldfinches migrate in the winter, but really they just change color. Their bright yellow coloring dulls down to a brownish-green coloring. Only the males are bright yellow in the summer; the females are always darker and plainer. Males also have a black cap in the summer. Goldfinches are smaller than sparrows, and they have a distinct black pattern on their wings. You don’t need special finch food to attract the goldfinches. They will eat mullet and other seeds, but many people put out thistle especially for them.
Robins are the only bird on this list that most likely will not come to a feeder, as robins eat mostly insects (worms). I’ve heard that seeing a robin means that spring is around the corner. This is simply not true, as Robins do not migrate. Robins have been at my birdbath every day this winter! I think we all know what a robin looks like, but I never knew that they had such a distinct white ring around their eye. Look for it next time you see one.
The Mourning Dove is actually quite a handy bird to have around if you have feeders in your yard that spill a lot. As ground eaters, they are like natural vacuums. Of course, they can also quickly overtake your entire yard (too much of a good thing…), as one tends to draw in others. Doves and pigeons are all part of the same family. In fact, the pigeons that you see in the cities used to be known as Rock Doves, but have since been re-named for whatever reason. There can be tons of variation with doves, but the Mourning Dove is usually grey with a black pattern on its wings. It’s called the Mourning Dove because of the sad song it sings. It’s also known as the Turtle Dove.
Carolina Wrens are my favorite birds. I have yet to attract or see other types of wrens, but I hear that the House Wren is very popular here, as well. The Carolina Wren tends to be seen with a partner. They pair off for life, although males will mate with more than one female. They are highly personable birds, and if you’re lucky enough to see one, you’ll notice that it has all kinds of silly mannerisms. It makes many different sounds and calls. They like to eat basically anything I put out, but they seem to most enjoy meal worms. The Carolina Wren is about the size of a sparrow, but is more gold in color. Their beaks are longer and thinner than a sparrow’s, as well, and their bodies are a lot rounder. They basically look like little round feather balls. They tend to nest anywhere – in eaves, sheds, stick piles, etc.
WOODPECKER (Red-bellied and Downy)
I have had a lot of luck attracting woodpeckers to my yard using suet. I was given a woodpecker feeder as a gift and it actually worked, attracting several larger woodpeckers (and a Northern Flicker) daily. I think that people know that woodpeckers nest in trees – often in dead branches. They hollow out holes with their beaks when it’s time to make a nest and lay some eggs. You can tell if you have woodpeckers by listening for them or by checking your trees for a lot of holes. Note that most times with woodpeckers, males have red coloring on their heads while the females have less red or no red at all. The Red-bellied Woodpecker is the larger of the two types discussed here. Its red belly is very hard to see; at a glance it looks all white. The Downy Woodpecker is small and has more of a black and white pattern. There are, of course, many other kinds of woodpeckers, but there two seem to be the most common and the easiest to identify.
FINAL TIP: If you want to attract some new birds to your yard this spring, the thing I most recommend is a birdbath. They don’t need anything fancy or deep. A shallow bowl works just fine. All birds, no matter what they like to eat, need water, so you have a much greater chance of seeing someone new! If you want to attract a certain type of bird, find out what they eat and buy your feeder/seed accordingly. Good luck! Let me know what you're seeing in your backyard!
Want to see more of my birding pictures? Go here