Backyard Birds: 12 of Our Favorites
Learn to recognize our roster of favorite feathered friends.
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As blue as a summer sky.
A Mountain Bluebird in an alpine meadow is about as romantic as it gets. But despite its name, the Mountain Bluebird is most often found living in the foothills and flatlands of the West, in open areas, farm fields, and along woods' edges.
Attract the Mountain Bluebird with suet, mealworms, and a cornmeal-peanut butter dough.
Look for the all-blue male, who takes on a turquoise tinge in breeding season, and the soft gray female. Some females have a rusty breast, making them look more like Eastern or Western Bluebirds, which overlap the Mountain Bluebird's range. But this species has a slimmer silhouette and longer tail and wings than its pudgier counterparts.
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Trick or Treat
Clever Black-Billed Magpies change their habits to get by.
The glory days of this Western species ended when American bison were wiped out. Now, instead of scavenging at the buffalo hunts, Black-Billed Magpies patrol parking lots and trash cans or investigate roadkill in search of scraps. And instead of taking ticks from the woolly backs of buffalo, they pluck those edible pests from deer and moose.
One way or another, magpies make a go of it -- and their range is slowly spreading eastward. Look for their gigantic nests, as big as a bushel basket, and listen for their loud, harsh chatter.
Attract these entertaining birds with suet and meat scraps, with a side of bread, tortillas, or other leftovers. And if you want to see that clever brain in action, set out a take-out box from last night's dinner and watch the bird undo the lid to get at the goodies inside!
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King of the little brown birds
Bold stripes and erect posture make the White-Crowned Sparrow stand out in a crowd.
The White-Crowned Sparrow's eye-catching head coupled with its singing would grab anyone's attention. Its sweet song begins with a long, plaintive note, followed by a variable series of trilling whistles.
Young birds pick up the tune from the repertoire of adult males in their own neighborhood, so your sparrow is likely to sing in a different dialect than those that grew up elsewhere.
Brushy garden beds -- let those cosmos stems stay standing -- attract sparrows in fall and winter because they're scratching for seeds. Add white proso mullet at the feeder and a ground-level birdbath, and your yard will be a haven for these little brown birds.
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An unmistakable bird -- if you can find it
Red-Headed Woodpecker populations occur in pockets.
"Locally common" is the description for this gorgeous bird's range, which means you may be blessed with a bunch of them, while your friend in the next county waits in vain. Sadly, the stunning redhead is declining in numbers, so they're getting even harder to find.
Parks and open woods, especially oak or beech woods with their bounty of nuts, are its homeland of choice, although it also frequents the trees in swamps, rivers, woods' edges, and nearby backyards.
Check the tops of wooden utility poles and fence posts, where the birds often perch to make "fly-catching" forays after passing insects. Male and female birds share the same vivid plumage, and juveniles have a brownish-gray head.
Plant a patch of corn or Indian corn, and let the ears dry on the stalks to attract this beauty. A cob of dried corn is a draw at feeders, too, along with suet and nuts.
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A dapper tyrant
The fearless Eastern Kingbird rules open spaces.
Although it's smaller than a robin, the Eastern Kingbird is so fierce it drives off blue jays, cats, crows, and hawks that dare to enter its territory. And if this bird's chosen ground includes your large lawn, you may find yourself being dive-bombed. Even harmless, little hummingbirds are fair game.
Like other flycatchers, kingbirds spend a lot of time on perches, waiting to fly out and snatch a passing insect. Then it's back to the perch to wait some more. Well, unless a transgressor comes along. Then the male bird -- the self-appointed watchdog for its home of pasture, golf course, or other open space -- dashes out, sputtering an indignant tzeer-tzeer-tzeer!
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An eerie whinny in the dark
The call of a Screech Owl stops mice in their tracks.
This little owl, not much bigger than your hand, may become a regular at your feeding station at night, but it won't be looking for birdseed -- it'll be hunting mice.
A whinny or trill, along with an occasional screech, is the calling card of the gray or reddish-brown Eastern Screech Owl, one of the few birds that can thrive in any habitat, from desserts to deep forests to cities. Its gray Western counterpart is less adaptable, and it hoots instead.
Jays go into conniptions when they spot an owl, because mice aren't the only thing on the screech owl menu. Sleeping birds and nestlings are part of the meal plan, too, along with slugs, moths, and other morsels.
Predation is just part of nature, so don't worry if you hear an owl outside. And if you want to attract a pair of these interesting hunters, a nest box works like magic -- unless squirrels or starlings claim it first.
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The Common Grackle is a bold beauty -- with a voice like a bad joke.
Grackles are not exactly genteel birds. They're big, noisy, messy, and fond of eating bird eggs and nestlings. Males strut around as if they own the place, bowing and fluffing their iridescent feathers in a courtship display that's mighty impressive until Romeo opens his beak and screeches like a rusty gate.
Grackles will eat almost anything, from insects to acorns and grain to fish and frogs, so they'll find plenty to eat at your feeding station. Deter them, if you prefer, by using feeders that block big birds.
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That big bill is the clue
Take a close look to separate the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy.
Hairy Woodpeckers are larger than Downies but not by much. And size can be deceptive when you don't have the two of them side by side to compare. Another clue: Hairies spend more time on the truck of a tree, while Downies scour the branches.
But for accurate identification, check the bill -- the Hairy's bill is noticeable longer and stouter than the short, pointed beak of the Downy.
Suet, nuts, and peanut butter treats will delight a Hairy as much as they do a Downy. Try a dish of mealworms, too, since birds are quickly learning to look for them, and mount a nest box in late winter, when the birds are checking out home sites.
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The Porche of predators
A sharp-eyed Cooper's Hawk is the bane of the birdfeeder.
If your feeder suddenly goes bare of birds, take a look in the trees. A Cooper's Hawk may be perched nearby, waiting for its prey. Those piercing eyes are focused on food -- finches, flickers, doves, or any other bird unlucky enough to cross its path. Juveniles, with yellow eyes and brown backs, are just as adapt at catching birds as adults, which have red or orange eyes, blue-gray backs, and reddish breasts.
Once a bird of the forests, the Cooper's Hawk has come out into the open, thanks to the easy pickings in backyards. Incredibly swift and agile, it quickly outmaneuvers its prey, even through tree branches. No wonder birds dive for cover when a Coop comes calling!
Give your birds a fighting chance by adding corridors of dense cover where they can lie low or sneak away through tightly knit branches. Evergreen hollies, yews, arborvitae, spruces, and firs make a good all-season refuge.
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Always on the move
The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is a tiny bundle of nervous energy.
One of the smallest birds in North America, this little dynamo flutters nonstop about branch tips while it plucks off insects from the foliage. Even when perched, it constantly flutters its wings.
On spring migration and during breeding season, the male Ruby-Crowned breaks into long, warbling songs that are so loud and piercing you won't believe it is coming from that itty-bitty body. Naturally, the pretty melody pours forth in double-quick time!
Kinglets are insect-eaters, but they may visit a feeder for a nibble of suet. A quick glance at the head will tell you which species it is: The Ruby-Crowned has a plain head with a white eye ring that gives it a wide awake look; the Golden-Crowned's head is striped. As for that ruby crown? You'll notice it only when the bird raises its head feathers.
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On the waterfront
Tree Swallows live near water -- but berries and feathers tempt them inland.
It's waterfront property that tempts Tree Swallows to colonize nearby birdhouses or nesting trees. That's because the water provides plenty of insects that take to the air -- where swarms of swallows can nab them.
Try a trio of nest boxes about 10-20 feet apart, even if you're not that close to the waterfront. Or catch their eye by scattering soft, white feathers on your lawn in spring -- prized material for feathering the nest.
Unlike other swallows, this species eats insects and berries -- bayberries, to be exact (Myrica pensylvanica or M. cerifera). You'll need female plants for a heavy crop, with a sparse-berried male for pollination.
In fall, migrating Tree Swallows may alight en masse to gobble up the waxy berries. And if you live along the Atlantic or Gulf cost, the bite-size berries might attract a wintering flock, too.
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Common, yes; hawk, no
Day or night, the Common Nighthawk is a definite oddball.
Take its nest, for starters. Instead of making one, this bird just finds a flat spot. Its eggs are lopsided, so they don't roll off. Then there's the choice of unusual home sites: Some nighthawks are city slickers, laying their eggs on flat roofs above busy streets. Others are country bumpkins that nest in fields, on beaches, among rocks, or in burnt-over woods.
Nighthawks are close cousins of the Whip-poor-will, but their voice is nothing to write home about. Listen for their nasal peent! at dusk as nighthawks take to the wing.
Look for nighthawks at dusk and dawn, when these peculiar birds fly about like giant bats, scooping moths or other morsels into their gaping maw. And keep an eye on billboards and highway lights, too, especially during fall migration when whole swarms of nighthawks swirl in the bug-attracting beam.