Winter Birds

Black-capped Chickadee trained to feed from hands. Photos by Katie Finch

On Saturday, I noticed a pile of black oil sunflower seeds in the nature play area at Audubon. I don’t know who put it there or why. Arriving on Sunday to lead a program in that space, I assumed the pile would be gone. Certainly, deer would have lapped up this unexpected treat overnight. The only evidence left would be their tracks in the light coating of snow. But no, it was still there.

Not deer but birds discovered the seed. It wasn’t surprising that the first (or at least the first I noticed) was a Black-capped Chickadee. They always seem to be the first birds to come back to the feeder after I fill them, not as wary of human presence as other birds. Are they braver or just hungrier?

The chickadee flits from branch to branch in the White Pine tree above, observing. Then, it takes a chance. It flies to the ground, grabs a seed and carries it to a protected perch. On the perch, it holds it with its toes and uses its short bill to peck away at the shell to get at the highly nutritious kernel inside. “Chickadee-dee-dee” it calls after eating; a call it makes to regroup the flock. A few more chickadees arrive, getting as close as the other side of the picnic table from where I sat observing on this sunny, mild winter day.

“Yank, yank, yank” comes the nasal, staccato call of the White-breasted Nuthatch. As they fly in closer they perch sideways or face down on the tree, the warm afternoon sun catching the glint in their eye. Like the chickadee, they fly quickly to the seed and out again, eating the seed from a perch with more cover.

The next to arrive are the Dark-eyed Juncos. The darker, slate-colored males and the lighter, browner, females search for food together on the ground. Then a few goldfinches arrive in their winter brown colors. The juncos and finches pick up the seed and work it around in their bills, deftly removing the shell. Watching this movement, the absence of hands and fingers was never so apparent but also never so inconsequential. Bills, wings and feet do them just fine.

White-breasted Nuthatch.

Northern Cardinals are visible in the distance. The bright red male and a drabber female. They don’t approach the seed but their sharp “Pee-too, Pee-too, Pee-too” pierces the air. I have always been a little disappointed at our treatment of the brightly colored males in the bird world. They are the ones noticed first and featured more prominently in field guides. So much energy goes into their striking colors and impressive behavior. All to attract and win a mate. A little different from human domain. But suddenly I was relieved that it wasn’t the female’s job to put all that energy into impressing the opposite sex.

In the winter, many songbird species travel and feed together. Territory and competition for a mate aren’t as important as food and safety this time of year. But this mixed winter flock will soon break up as the seasons change. In the harshest of our seasons, though, they hang together, sharing what they have in common, disregarding their differences.

The next day, Monday, was cold and rainy. The seed was soaked and birds taking cover, not exploring. Bordered by the introduction of a cold and rainy day, Sunday afternoon felt like a small window. Opened to a beautiful winter scene present to anyone who stopped to witness it.

Aided by stillness and patience as well as a mild winter day and a mysterious pile of sunflower seeds I was able to enjoy a few moments of close observation and a wonder at the unique life around us.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information is online at or by calling 569-2345.

Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.