Throughout the winter months, many people are entertained by a variety of birds at their feeders. These birds typically include species such as cardinals, blue jays, and woodpeckers. But, many people don’t even notice that some of the birds they see during the winter aren’t around the rest of the year. Those birds are winter migrants.

Winter migrants are birds that nest and spend most of the year further north, anywhere from northern Minnesota to the Arctic Circle in northern Canada and Alaska. When fall sets in, and winter is just around the corner, these birds migrate south, just as many of our summer birds do. But, when these birds fly south, they fly south to Iowa to take advantage of our “mild” winter weather!

Juncos are probably the most common and most easily identified of our winter migrants. They are small grey birds (with white outside tail feathers) that typically feed under feeders, cleaning up what the other birds spill! Many people also spot red-breasted nuthatches at their feeders. These tiny birds are smaller than their cousins (white-breasted nuthatches) and, as their name implies, have an orange-tinted front.

Several species of sparrows also show up in Iowa only during the winter months. Tree sparrows, for instance, are easily identified by their brown cap and a black spot on the middle of their breast. White-throated sparrows have black and white striped heads and, again as their name implies, a white throat. White-crowned sparrows are less common, but look very similar to the white-throated sparrows, except without the white throat.

Purple finches will also be showing up soon. Males look like purple sparrows, while females look like heavily-striped sparrows. Pine siskins also spend the winter in Iowa. They, too, look like sparrows. But, their beaks are very pointed and, if you look carefully, you may see some yellow on their wings. Redpolls are not as common as other winter migrants, but they also spend their winters in Iowa, a long way from their nesting grounds in northern Canada. They are easily identified by their bright red cap.

If you would like more information about these hardy migrants, consider purchasing a field guide to help you identify and learn more about the birds you’re seeing. You can also check out various web sites or phone apps such as Merlin Bird ID or Audubon Birds of North America, both of which are free. And, this winter, be sure to watch for those winter migrants. After all, they’ve come a long way to make Iowa their winter home!

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