Take a walk through the woods on a winter day and you almost surely will hear and see black-capped chickadees, those energetic sprites of the forest. Their winter entourage may include several other species of birds, as well, including nuthatches, brown creepers and downy woodpeckers and, if you're very lucky, a small flock of golden-crowned kinglets.
Many people think of winter as bereft of birds after autumn migrations, but in fact this can be a bountiful season for bird-watchers. No, you won't see the numbers and diversity of birds that surround us in the warm months. But what winter offers is the chance to observe behavior — birds act differently in the cold, their activities much more focused. And they're easier to spot and watch, without tree leaves to hide their comings and goings.
It's true that there are many fewer birds out and about at this time, after something like 90 percent of those that nested here in summer departed before winter. The migrants didn't leave to escape the cold; instead, they headed south because their food source disappeared. Birds that thrive on juicy insects (swallows, warblers, flycatchers) and those that feed on the ground (robins, thrashers, towhees) can't find much to eat in the North after a cold snap.
Listen for 'dees
Winter offers a different menu, and birds are more likely to band together in their hunt for sustenance. The foods that are abundant at this season are seeds and inactive insects (many are hibernating, some are still in egg form), and the birds that thrive on them tend to be hardy, efficient foragers during winter's short periods of daylight.
That mixed flock following a group of chickadees through the woods is on the prowl for insects. Downy woodpeckers peck at bark to find egg cases and hibernating spiders, while chickadees snatch dormant insects from under twigs and around buds. Brown creepers skitter up a trunk, running their long beaks into bark crevices, and nuthatches spiral down the bark, picking up what the creepers miss. The rarely seen golden-crowned kinglets swallow microscopic dormant insects, including tiny moth caterpillars, from the tips of conifer needles.
Chickadees chant "dee da dee dee dee" as they snap up their prey, and this call alerts like-minded birds to follow in their wake, becoming a foraging flock. Listen for chickadees and you'll almost surely see several other species of birds. Working in a group, the success of one species tends to boost success for the others.
You'll find a different category of winter birds in open spaces. For the seed eaters — finches and juncos and other sparrows — this can be a time of abundance (which is why you're advised not to cut down flower heads in garden beds, because these are a smorgasbord for birds). Look for finches around stands of prairie grasses, native plantings in meadows and fields, and rain gardens. Goldfinches often will ride a stalk down to the ground, and then stand to pick off its seeds. Juncos hop and skip on top of snow to grab fallen seeds. And tree sparrows, winter visitors from farther north, prowl roadsides and trails for weed seeds.
Evergreen cones are another source of seeds, appealing to pine siskins, purple finches, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Tracking can be fun in winter, too: Watch for signs that wild turkeys strutted through in single file or a family of crows hopped over the snow. An uncommon but always fascinating sight is the outline of an owl in fresh snow, imprinting a silhouette from wingtip to wingtip as it swooped down on a mouse or vole.
It's time to head outdoors — bring your binoculars and see what the natural world offers up for your delight and edification. Winter is a great season for observing what birds are up to, something that's always worth our while.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.