Moving through the top 25 birds on feeders in Idaho last winter, according to Project FeederWatch, we are down to No. 17 — the red-winged blackbird. Few species in Idaho show such extreme sexual dimorphism — that is the difference in appearance between males and females of the same species. I have seen numerous people over the years confuse female red-wings for sparrows due to their brown streaking. During the nesting season, male red-wings spend most of their time displaying and singing. They have evolved to be very conspicuous. Females on the nest have the opposite need — to be camouflaged. It’s most interesting that more species don’t show this dichotomy.
Red-winged blackbirds come to feeders during migration and winter more than during the breeding season in most locations. They eat every kind of seed and will use all types of feeders. In natural settings, they typically forage on the ground, so ground feeders might get you more blackbirds, if that’s what you want. This blackbird has varied from 10th to 19th in Idaho over the past 14 winters, and they appear to have a slight downward trend.
Next is one of our birds who eat birds, the sharp-shinned hawk. We see many more of their close relative, the Cooper’s hawk, in southwest Idaho yards any time of the year. But when you look at the statewide data from FeederWatch, the sharpy is more common.
These two accipiters are often confused, but there are many differences between the species. The shape of the head, shape of the tail tip, position of eyes in the head, and colors of the crown and nape are all good clues. Although sharpies are, on average, smaller than Coops, size is not an especially good field mark. Sharp-shinned hawk populations show a slight decline over the past 14 years, according to FeederWatch data.
In the 19th spot last winter was the California quail. They’ve never been higher than No.13 or lower than No.19 over the past 14 years, and their trend over that period is stable. Quail of several species are known for being highly susceptible to cold winters and cold, wet springs. But this species seems to have done very well in Idaho. People love these birds, so it’s good to see them hanging in there, despite the extensive loss of their pasture and edge habitats to urban sprawl in some parts of the state.
Cassin’s finch came in at No. 20. This higher-elevation relative of the house finch has been of conservation concern to Partners in Flight for some time due to their range-wide population declines. In Idaho, they don’t show up on the top 25 list at FeederWatch often enough to get a sense for their trend. But taking a peek at the Christmas Bird Count data for Cassin’s finch (more on Christmas Bird Counts soon), it looks like their populations have been stable since the winter of 2007-2008 in Idaho. However, their populations have been declining rangewide, so much so that Partners in Flight has placed this species on the Yellow Watch List (partnersinflight.org).
This is one of those birds you can typically see while camping at higher elevations in the summer. Their songs and appearance are similar to those of the house finch, so they provide another good opportunity to tease out the subtle differences between closely related species. We get a few Cassin’s finches in the valley in winter and during migration, but they aren’t very common. Here’s another species to watch for on your feeders. They can sneak by as a house finch if you aren’t paying attention.
In the 21st spot was our most common bird who eats birds. Cooper’s hawk is one of those species, like Canada geese, house sparrows and mallards, which have figured out how to live in urban environments. As I detailed in an earlier column (Feb. 17, 2021), ”Birds Who Eat Birds,” Coops are increasing in many locations across the country. They have been in the top 25 in Idaho for the last six straight winters, and I don’t think they’re going anywhere but up. It interesting that sharp-shinned hawks have not figured out what Cooper’s hawks are doing to be so successful.
The lesser goldfinch, No. 22 last winter, shows a population trend very similar to that of Cooper’s hawk. They did not appear in the top 25 until the winter of 2015-2016, but they’ve remained on the list since then. Like American goldfinches and pine siskins, they love thistle seed. But they also love the gangly, wild sunflowers that grow all over the valley and foothills. In fall, you are almost guaranteed to see a lesser goldfinch — often many — if you watch a patch of these sunflowers for a few minutes.
We grew these sunflowers in our yard this year. I harvested some of the small seed heads and placed them in a tray on our feeder pole. Lesser goldfinches and black-capped chickadees often selected these seeds over the larger and more easily accessible black sunflower seeds in two tube feeders. It would be interesting to run a little experiment on seed choice using these seeds.
As we get to the bottom of the top 25 list, we get more and more species that are often not on the list. The lovely evening grosbeak was 23rd last winter, only the fifth time in the last 17 years that it was common enough to break into the top group. As a result, we can’t determine anything about its population trend from these FeederWatch data. However, note that Partners in Flight has placed this species on its Yellow Watch List, along with Cassin’s finch and many other species, due to steep population declines rangewide.
Evening grosbeaks aren’t very common around Boise, but I’ve seen feeders covered with them in and around McCall. The Birds of Idaho Field Checklist classifies them as “common, but sometimes difficult to find” statewide during winter and migration. They are not common by any standards, so that needs to be corrected. They are also classified as “uncommon or local” statewide during the summer, which is also very generous.
Coming in at No. 24 was the white-crowned sparrow. It surprises me that this species hasn’t been in the top 25 every year. They are common along the foothills trails around the Treasure Valley in winter, although I admit I’ve never had one on a feeder or in our yard. Perhaps they avoid urban environments in favor of somewhat wilder habitats. I’d love to hear your experience with these birds in your yard.
Flocks of white-crowned sparrows are always worth examining. I have found golden-crowned sparrows, Harris’s sparrows, and white-throated sparrows hanging with them, along with the more common song sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Note that white-throated sparrows also have black-and-white striped heads. Even if you can’t see the white throat (if you are looking down on them), the bright yellow lores usually show well.
Our final species on the top 25 list from Project FeederWatch last winter was the cedar waxwing. This species shows up on the list in most years, and we’re not surprised to see a flock of waxwings, especially in the winter. But like white-crowned sparrows, you have to wonder why they aren’t always on the list.
One reason may be that waxwings — both cedar and Bohemian — travel in flocks in winter. Like American robins, they can be a sort of boom-or-bust species. You might have a lot one winter and then none the next. In those years when we have none, we think they are simply somewhere else where there is more fruit to eat.
For those of us interested in data and in the population trends of species, Project FeederWatch provides an excellent source of data for certain species. Obviously, FeederWatch isn’t useful for rough-legged hawks, snowy owls, or ruffed grouse. But it’s awfully good for the species in its target group. Consider joining FeederWatch and contributing to our knowledge of birds from the comfort of your family room, living room, kitchen, or wherever you can sit with a cup of coffee and watch your feeders in your bunny slippers.
FeederWatch is just one source of winter bird data. Another is the much older Audubon Christmas Bird Count. I’ll write about that soon. Check the “Events” tab on the Golden Eagle Audubon Society’s website (goldeneagleaudubon.org) for details on counts in Boise, Nampa, McCall, Garden Valley, and Cascade that are coming up. You might want to locate your long johns and mittens as those dates approach.
In the meantime, keep your feeders full and let the birds come to you!