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True or false: Nearly all our birds disappear in autumn, either migrating to warmer climates or hiding out for the winter in the woods.

I'd say this is resoundingly false. Yes, something like three-fourths of the species we see in the summertime depart for warmer climates each fall. But that still leaves a goodly number of year-round residents like cardinals and chickadees, as well as some birds who escape Canada's harsher winters by migrating here — think dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows.

For proof, consider the annual Christmas Bird Count, which just wrapped up its 117th year. In my St. Paul area, 15 teams of bird-watchers spend a Saturday each December counting all the birds we find. The tally is usually about 12,000 individuals and 55 or so different species, a good indication that not all the birds have abandoned us.

Which birds are among the faithful few you can count on seeing between December and April?

Dark-eyed junco

This small sparrow travels from Canada and feeds on the ground in flocks, so watch for examples of "pecking order" behavior.

Food: millet seed, sunflower seed chips, cracked corn.

Northern cardinal

Ground feeders by habit, they also use tray and platform feeders, feeding primarily at dawn and dusk.

Food: black oiler sunflower seed, safflower seed, peanut pieces, cracked corn.


Downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers can be regular backyard feeder visitors. Much of their day is spent pecking at tree bark in search of insects.

Food: Shelled peanuts, suet.

Blue jay

These handsome birds are especially fond of peanuts in the shell and will also scoop up sunflower seeds by the dozens to digest later.

Food: Peanuts, suet, black oilers.

American goldfinch

Goldfinches, looking very drab in winter, feed on plant seeds, then gather at feeders for quick energy.

Food: Niger seed, black oilers and sunflower seed pieces.

Black-capped chickadee

These little dynamos show up many times a day at feeders, carrying seed to a branch to peck into small pieces.

Food: Black oilers, suet, sunflower seed pieces, safflower.

White-breasted nuthatch

These are the "upside down" birds, preferring tube feeders so they can perch head down to peck out morsels.

Food: Black oilers, suet, peanut pieces, safflower.

House sparrow

Many people malign this nonnative species, but they're out there and they get hungry, too.

Food: Millet, black oilers, suet, peanut pieces, safflower.

Other birds

Other birds make a living in our area in winter, such as the bald eagles hunting over open water for fish, and American crows searching fields and roadsides for meals.

Red-tailed and Cooper's hawks may make a sweep over the backyard, the red-tail looking for squirrels and other rodents, the Cooper's keeping an eye out for songbirds.

Three species of owls — barred, great horned and Eastern screech — are around all winter, but we don't often see them since they usually hunt their prey at night.

Robins are increasingly seen all winter long in our area, often feasting in large flocks on hackberry tree berries and showing up at heated birdbaths to drink and bathe. Mourning doves might shuffle on the ground, searching for millet and cracked corn.

No, winter isn't bereft of birds. In fact, it can be a very busy time at backyard feeders and birdbaths. Many species share the same tastes, so offering several kinds of food can attract several species at once.

Cold weather means birds must eat more food to stay alive, and shorter days mean they have less time to search for it. It's a very good time to give them a hand by keeping feeders filled (and birdbaths fresh).

And don't worry if you're going to be away; birds can find enough food out in nature to tide them over.

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at

Winterizing for birds

• Keep birdbath ice-free and clean.

• Refill feeders regularly.

• Create a brush pile for shelter.

• Rake under feeders and discard litter in trash.

• Place UV-reflecting decals on windows near feeders to avoid bird collisions.

Homemade bird treat

1 cup butter or lard

1 cup peanut butter

1½ cups sunflower seed chips

1½ cups chopped nuts

1½ cups quick oats

1½ cups cornmeal

½ cup sugar

Mix dry ingredients and set aside. Melt shortening and peanut butter together, stirring until combined. Pour melted mix into dry mix and stir until combined. Press into containers and freeze for 2 hours before filling feeders, then refreeze the rest. (This is deluxe stuff, so you might want to portion it out slowly.)

Val Cunningham