Some Common Minnesota Backyard Birds

By Laura Erickson

These are some of the most commonly seen birds in Minnesota. They’re listed in taxonomic order to reflect our understanding of each bird’s genetic relationships with other birds. (Scientists studying DNA and other things sometimes change this order, but it’s current as of 2022.) You can click on any of these to go straight to a species you’re interested in.

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Mallard
  3. Mourning Dove
  4. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  5. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  6. Downy Woodpecker
  7. Hairy Woodpecker
  8. Northern Flicker
  9. Pileated Woodpecker
  10. Blue Jay
  11. American Crow
  12. Black-capped Chickadee
  13. Barn Swallow
  14. Cedar Waxwing
  15. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  16. White-breasted Nuthatch
  17. House Wren
  18. Gray Catbird
  19. Brown Thrasher
  20. European Starling
  21. American Robin
  22. House Sparrow
  23. House Finch
  24. American Goldfinch
  25. Chipping Sparrow
  26. Dark-eyed Junco
  27. Song Sparrow
  28. Baltimore Oriole
  29. Red-winged Blackbird
  30. Common Grackle
  31. Common Yellowthroat
  32. Yellow Warbler
  33. Northern Cardinal

CANADA GOOSE

#Canada Goose

Branta canadensis
Length: 29.9–43.3 in (76–110 cm)
Weight: 105.8–317.5 oz (3000–9000 g)
Wingspan: 50.0–66.9 in (127–170 cm)

Canada Geese are much more common today than when your grandparents were young. Most of the geese in the state once nested further north, but a population of geese that don’t migrate, originally found mostly in the Rochester area, are fairly non-migratory, breeding in parks and other areas with large lawns. When hunting groups pressed for “reintroduction programs” to increase the number of geese in the state, these fairly non-migratory birds were brought to a great many cities and towns. Geese are among the very few birds in the world that can digest grass, so they thrive wherever they can find both small bodies of water and large lawns. Many Canada Geese migrate from Minnesota nesting areas, and a great many Canada Geese that nest in Canada migrate through the state, but many also remain through the winter in areas with open water. Mother geese are the ones who incubate the eggs, but the fathers stay nearby. After the goslings hatch, both parents take care of them. Families stick together into winter, and almost all pairs stay mated as long as they both survive.

Canada Goose.


MALLARD

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos
Length: 19.7–25.6 in (50–65 cm)
Weight: 35.3–45.9 oz (1000–1300 g)
Wingspan: 32.3–37.4 in (82–95 cm)

Like geese, Mallards don’t nest in backyards away from water, but they’re easy to see in parks. They often fly over backyards but are much quieter than geese so aren’t noticed as often. Drakes seldom remain with their mates after the hens start incubating the eggs. The females provide all the care for the eggs and ducklings but after the young can fly, families don’t stay together. Mallards can remain in Minnesota all winter where they can find food and open water.

The white ducks on many farms were originally domesticated from wild Mallards.

Mallard


MOURNING DOVE

Mourning Dove

Zenaida macroura
Length: 9.1–13.4 in (23–34 cm)
Weight: 3.4–6.0 oz (96–170 g)
Wingspan: 17.7 in (45 cm)

Although it’s not technically a songbird, the Mourning Dove takes its name from the sad, mournful tone of the male’s song, Hooo-HOOOO-ah, Hooooo, Hooooo, which many people mistake for an owl. Mourning Doves beat their sturdy wings fast and hard while taking off in flight, producing a soft clapping sound, and their wings make a cool whistling sound when they take off and land.

The male, a bit larger than the female, gathers small twigs, grasses, and other nesting materials as the female does the construction. He sits on her back to give the materials to her. Both parents incubate the two eggs and feed the two squabs special “pigeon milk” produced in a pouch along the esophagus called the crop. When conditions are favorable as far as weather and food, pairs may raise several broods in a single season. Pairs remain together for the entire nesting season, and if they both survive the hunting season and winter, may stay together year after year.

Mourning Dove


RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Archilochus colubris
Length: 2.8–3.5 in (7–9 cm)
Weight: 0.1–0.2 oz (2–6 g)
Wingspan: 3.1–4.3 in (8–11 cm)

The tiniest bird in the state, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, winters in the tropics, with the first spring migrants arriving in Minnesota around the first week of May. They feed on the nectar of flowers, oozing sap, and an abundance of insects. If they’re in your neighborhood, they’re easily attracted to bird feeders. To make sugar water for them, mix 1 cup of water with 1/4 cup of plain white sugar. Never use honey—it spoils too quickly. And never use food coloring, which has absolutely no nutritional value and can be harmful to their health. Clean your hummingbird feeder every few days, and every one or two days during hot weather.

Female hummingbirds do all the work of building the nest, laying and incubating the eggs, and raising the young. They lay two eggs in their tiny nest and raise those young until they’re independent. Then they often lay two more eggs and raise those young. The male’s job is to chase other birds from nearby flowers so the females won’t need to compete with other hummingbirds (except that one male) for nectar and insects.

Adult males begin migrating from Minnesota in July and early August. As the first batches of young become independent and get in shape to migrate, they start leaving, too. Adult females must get into shape for a journey after their last babies are all independent. Last to go are the last batches of babies, once their bodies are ready for a journey. Our heaviest migration is in August. Most hummers are gone by September. People who keep their feeders set out with fresh sugar water through September and October may help some of these late individuals. And if they’re lucky, they might even get to see a rarity—a Rufous Hummingbird or other western species. For some reason, hummingbird “vagrants” from the West appear in Minnesota every fall, but it takes luck as well as a bird feeder to attract one.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird


RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER

Red-bellied Woodpecker pair

Melanerpes carolinus
Length: 9.4 in (24 cm)
Weight: 2.0–3.2 oz (56–91 g)
Wingspan: 13.0–16.5 in (33–42 cm)

Red-bellied Woodpeckers were named by scientists who shot birds for museum collections and sometimes spotted a feature that is very hard to see in the field. This woodpecker looks a bit like some other species, but these scientists noticed a few reddish feathers on the belly that related species didn’t have. These feathers are impossible to see when Red-bellied Woodpeckers are on a tree holding their belly feathers tightly against the trunk.

It used to be hard or impossible to find Red-bellied Woodpeckers in northern Minnesota. They live in forests dominated by hardwood trees such as maples and boxelder. Now these trees are abundant in towns and cities throughout the state and the birds have worked their way north.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers visit bird feeders for suet, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. In spring they sometimes come to oranges or jelly. When we regularly put out a few live mealworms in a bowl, they often figure out our pattern and come to eat every one.

Although they are considered year-round residents, they do move around seasonally. In winter, they can be hard to notice in neighborhoods without bird feeders.

Red-bellied Woodpecker fledgling


DOWNY WOODPECKER

Adult male Downy Woodpecker

Dryobates pubescens
Length: 5.5–6.7 in (14–17 cm)
Weight: 0.7–1.0 oz (21–28 g)
Wingspan: 9.8–11.8 in (25–30 cm)

Our tiniest woodpecker can be found year-round just about anywhere in Minnesota where there are trees. Listen for them drumming on trees starting in January or February. This is part of their territorial and courtship behaviors, but they won’t actually nest until spring.

The main diet of Downy Woodpeckers is insects. They visit feeders for suet and sunflower seeds. For some reason, they are also often drawn to hummingbird feeders where they sip sugar water.

Young Downy Woodpecker


HAIRY WOODPECKER

Hairy Woodpecker

Dryobates villosus
Length: 7.1–10.2 in (18–26 cm)
Weight: 1.4–3.4 oz (40–95 g)
Wingspan: 13.0–16.1 in (33–41 cm)

Hairy Woodpeckers are not quite as common as Downy Woodpeckers but do often visit our backyard bird feeders. In winter, both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers drum on trees. If you pay close attention, you may hear that Hairies drum more rapidly than Downies do, but it will take practice searching out each woodpecker you hear drumming to see if you can start telling which is which.

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers look so similar that even experienced birders sometimes have trouble identifying them, especially in an unfamiliar woods where the size of the trees versus the size of the bird can be confusing. When you’re used to seeing both species at your feeder, the size difference is easier to deal with.

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers


NORTHERN FLICKER

Northern Flicker on the ground.

Colaptes auratus
Length: 11.0–12.2 in (28–31 cm)
Weight: 3.9–5.6 oz (110–160 g)
Wingspan: 16.5–20.1 in (42–51 cm)

The Northern Flicker, the state bird of Alabama, is nicknamed the “yellowhammer” because of the brilliant yellow underside of the flight and tail feathers and the fact that as a woodpecker, it hammers on wood.

Flickers feed on the same kinds of insects as other woodpeckers do, but also are extremely fond of ants. They also eat berries and other fruits. They sometimes visit bird baths. The vast majority of them leave Minnesota for the winter, migrating to the central and southern states. Overwintering flickers often visit suet feeders.

Northern Flicker eating a berry


PILEATED WOODPECKER

Pair of Pileated Woodpeckers at feeder

Dryocopus pileatus
Length: 15.8–19.3 in (40–49 cm)
Weight: 8.8-12.3 oz (250-350 g)
Wingspan: 26.0–29.5 in (66–75 cm)

This crow-sized woodpecker was once restricted to fairly remote areas, shying away from towns and cities, but little by little has adapted to neighborhoods with large old trees. Now\ more and more of them visit suet feeders. They nest in large old trees, building a new nest every year. They are non-migratory, but may spend more time in one part of their territory during the nesting season and more time in another area of their territory during the rest of the year.

Pileated Woodpeckers eat ants, but seldom sit on the ground at ant hills as flickers do. They’re more likely to feed on large carpenter ants near or on the ground on decaying old tree trunks. They also eat wood boring beetles deep in the wood of trees, including trees that have toppled to the ground. As they search for food, they dig large, rectangular-shaped holes, sometimes huge, to get deep into the wood when that’s where the insects are.

Pileated Woodpecker with tongue extended


BLUE JAY

Blue Jay

Cyanocitta cristatas
Length: 9.8–11.8 in (25–30 cm)
Weight: 2.5–3.5 oz (70–100 g)
Wingspan: 13.4–16.9 in (34–43 cm)

Blue Jays are both beautiful and smart, belonging to what is usually considered the most intelligent bird family in the world, “Corvidae,” along with crows, ravens, and magpies. They live in Minnesota year-round, yet thousands migrate over Hawk Ridge in northeastern Minnesota every autumn. Scientists are still trying to understand Blue Jay migration, because some individuals that remain all winter some years migrate other years, and even in years of exceptionally large migration, many individuals remain in northern Canada for the entire winter.

Blue Jays are omnivorous, eating insects and other small animals, berries, and seeds. They’re exceptionally fond of acorns, and are famous for “planting” them. They pull acorns off oak trees and eat some right away while they push some into hiding places on the ground, covering each one with a leaf. They remember where they hid these and return to eat many of them, but they hide away more than they’ll ever need. The others aren’t wasted—thanks to the leaf covering them, the soil stays a little cooler and moister, allowing the acorn to “germinate,” growing into a new oak tree.

Blue Jays stay with their mates as long as both survive. They usually nest just once a season. Most nests contain five eggs. The mother is the only one who incubates the eggs, but both parents feed and care for the chicks when they hatch. The family stays together through the rest of the summer.

Blue Jay


AMERICAN CROW

American Crow

Corvus brachyrhynchos
Length: 15.8–20.9 in (40–53 cm)
Weight: 11.2–21.9 oz (316–620 g)
Wingspan: 33.5–39.4 in (85–100 ccm)

American Crows are handsome, with glossy black feathers and sparkling black eyes, and among the most intelligent of all animals. Studies have proven that crows recognize individual humans. In particular, crows remember people who pose a danger to them, and teach their young and crows living in the neighborhood which people to avoid. Researchers who band nestling crows have learned that the neighborhood crows can recognize and harass them for decades after they’ve stopped banding.

Crows mate for life and families are very stable through generations. One- and two-year-old crows often help their parents raise new nestlings, and crows are also friendly and helpful toward other crows in their neighborhood. Pairs raise one brood of four or five young each year.

In autumn, many crows migrate from the northern parts of their range, but others remain. Scientists haven’t quite figured out what makes some individuals leave while others remain.

Hawks and owls can kill young crows, and Great Horned Owls sometimes visit a crow roost to kill several crows in a single night. When a crow spies a possible predator, especially a large owl, it gives out loud caw caw caw calls as it starts dive-bombing the predator. Other crows hearing it make similar loud calls and fly in to join it. Soon dozens of crows are gathered, all yelling and sometimes dive-bombing the predator. Their blood-curdling calls as they “mob” an owl may have been the original inspiration for the expression, “a murder of crows.”

Some people set out peanuts in the shell for their neighborhood crows. If you make a whistle each time you set out peanuts, some of the crows and jays near you may start flying in as soon as they hear you.

American Crow sitting on an owl decoy


BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE

Black-capped Chickadee

Poecile atricapillus
Length: 4.7–5.9 in (12–15 cm)
Weight: 0.3-0–5 oz (9–14 g)
Wingspan: 6.3–8.3 in (16–21 cm)

Black-capped Chickadees are one of Minnesota’s most familiar backyard birds because they are curious and unafraid. When people set out a new feeding station, chickadees are usually the first to discover it. Oddly enough, unlike most feeder birds, chickadees seldom eat in feeders with bird seed. Each one grabs a seed and flies off to eat it in a more protected area such as a tree branch, or to “cache” it (hide it for storage) in a crevice in tree bark, a tiny hole, or other hiding place. Chickadees have extremely good memories for where they hide their food.

Chickadees spend most of the year hanging out in a neighborhood flock. Males and females within a flock each hold a rank, and the higher-ranking birds get to grab a bit of food first. They seldom fight. If a lower-ranking bird is in the feeder when a higher-ranking bird arrives, the newcomer makes a little gargle call and the other will leave for a bit (often after grabbing a seed).

In winter, male chickadees (and sometimes females) start singing their hey, sweetie whistled song a LOT. Pairs occasionally take some time away from the flock, and new pairs of widowed or young birds start forming. In spring, each chickadee pair starts nesting. They often dig out their own cavity in a rotten fruit, birch, or aspen tree, but may use an abandoned Downy Woodpecker hole or a bird house. Researchers have discovered that chickadees prefer bird houses that have been filled with sawdust or wood chips, so the birds can excavate it themselves. If you try this, NEVER use sawdust from wood products or plywood, which have dangerous chemicals as well as wood. Both the male and female excavate the hole and build the nest. After the female lays the eggs (as many as 9!), she does all the incubation while the male brings her food. Once the nestlings hatch, usually all on the same day, both parents feed them. The babies do not leave the nest until they can fly, all of them leave the nest within a day of each other, and then none of them return to the nest all that season.

Chickadees visit feeders for bird seeds (especially sunflower seeds), suet, and mealworms. If we’re patient, we can teach them to take food from our hands.

Nestling chickadee about to fledge


BARN SWALLOW

Barn Swallow pair on nest

Hirundo rustica
Length: 5.9–7.5 in (15–19 cm)
Weight: 0.6–0.7 oz (17–20 g)
Wingspan: 11.4–12.6 in (29–32 cm)

Fledgling Barn Swallow and parent.


CEDAR WAXWING

Cedar Waxwing

Bombycilla cedrorum
Length: 5.5–6.7 in (14–17 cm)
Weight: 1.1 oz (32 g)
Wingspan: 8.7–11.8 in (22–30 cm)

Immature Cedar Waxwing


RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH

Male Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta canadensis
Length: 4.3 in (11 cm)
Weight: 0.3–0.5 oz (8–13 g)
Wingspan: 7.1–7.9 in (18–20 cm)

Female Red-breasted Nuthatch


WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH

Female White-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis
Length: 5.1–5.5 in (13–14 cm)
Weight: 0.6–1.1 oz (18–30 g)
Wingspan: 7.9–10.6 in (20–27 cm)

White-breasted Nuthatch at nest


HOUSE WREN

House Wren

Troglodytes aedon
Length: 4.3–5.1 in (11–13 m)
Weight: 0.3–0.4 oz (10–12 g)
Wingspan: 5.9 in (15 cm)

Fledgling House Wren


GRAY CATBIRD

Gray Catbird

Dumetella carolinensis
Length: 8.3–9.4 in (21–24 cm)
Weight: 0.8–2.0 oz (23.2–56.5 g)
Wingspan: 8.7–11.8 in (22–30 cm)

Gray Catbird at oriole feeder


BROWN THRASHER

Brown Thrasher

Toxostoma rufum
Length: 9.1–11.8 in (23–30 cm)
Weight: 2.1–3.1 oz (61–89 g)
Wingspan: 11.4–12.6 in (29–32 cm)

Brown Thrasher on lawn


EUROPEAN STARLING

European Starling in breeding plumage

Sturnus vulgaris
Length: 7.9–9.1 in (20–23 cm)
Weight: 2.1–3.4 oz (60–96 g)
Wingspan: 12.2–15.8 in (31–40 cm)

European Starling in winter plumage


AMERICAN ROBIN

American Robin

Turdus migratorius
Length: 7.9-11.0 in (20-28 cm)
Weight: 2.7-3.0 oz (77-85 g)
Wingspan: 12.2-15.8 in (31-40 cm)

American Robins are very familiar backyard birds in Minnesota, and are the state bird of Michigan and Wisconsin. They don’t normally come to bird feeders, though some figure out feeders when we offer mealworms. They come extremely readily to birdbaths. Some learn to approach gardeners who toss them earthworms. And they eat a lot of small fruits and berries.

Robins change their behavior and diet seasonally. During spring and early summer, they become very territorial, the males singing to proclaim that they own the territory all around them. Both sexes chase other robins from their nesting area.Pairs that succeed in nesting often stay together to rear a second and sometimes even a third brood. The female builds the nest with the male bringing her some nesting materials as he sings to defend their territory. She does all the incubating of the eggs, but both parents feed the young. If a pair stays together to nest a second time, the father takes care of the first batch of fledglings as the mother builds a new nest, lays new eggs, and incubates them. By the time those eggs hatch, the first batch of babies will be able to take care of themselves.

Spring and summer are the seasons when robins feed heavily on worms, slugs, insects, and other tiny creatures. Some even figure out how to catch tiny fish near the shores of small ponds. This diet is very high in protein, which adult females need to produce eggs and babies need to grow.

In late summer, robins start taking advantage of fruiting trees and shrubs even as they’re still eating a lot of insects and worms. Independent young start forming small flocks, and as adults finish rearing young for the season, they lose their territorial impulses and join flocks, too. By winter, the vast majority of robins move about in flocks, feeding almost exclusively on fruits and berries.

A great many robins, mostly males, overwinter throughout Minnesota where mountain ash berries, crabapples, and other fruits are abundant. When they’ve stripped all the trees bear of their fruits in one area, they move on. Even though we can see robins year-round, the ones here in winter are often birds from further north, not ones who will remain in spring.

American Robin


HOUSE SPARROW

Male House Sparrow

Passer domesticus
Length: 5.9–6.7 in (15–17 cm)
Weight: 0.9–1.1 oz (27–30 g)
Wingspan: 7.5–9.8 in (19–25 cm)

Female House Sparrow


HOUSE FINCH

Female House Finch

Haemorhous mexicanus
Length: 5.1–5.5 in (13–14 cm)
Weight: 0.6–0.9 oz (16–27 g)
Wingspan: 7.9–9.8 in (20–25 cm)

Male House Finch


AMERICAN GOLDFINCH

Male American Goldfinch in spring

Spinus tristis
Length: 4.3–5.1 in (11–13 cm)
Weight: 0.4–0.7 oz (11–20 g)
Wingspan: 7.5–8.7 in (19–22 cm)

Female American Goldfinch in summer


CHIPPING SPARROW

Chipping Sparrow

Spizella passerina
Length: 4.7–5.9 in (12–15 cm)
Weight: 0.4–0.6 oz (11–16 g)
Wingspan: 8.3 in (21 cm)

Fledgling Chipping Sparrow


DARK-EYED JUNCO

Adult male Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hyemalis
Length: 5.5–6.3 in (14–16 cm)
Weight: 0.6–1.1 oz (18–30 g)
Wingspan: 7.1–9.8 in (18–25 cm)

Female Dark-eyed Junco


SONG SPARROW

Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia
Length: 4.7–6.7 in (12–17 cm)
Weight: 0.4–1.9 oz (12–53 g)
Wingspan: 7.1–9.4 in (18–24 cm)

Song Sparrows are very common backyard birds in most of Minnesota, but they’re secretive and most people don’t know they exist, so manage to get through life without people paying much attention to them. They sing a lot throughout the day, starting when they arrive in April or May. The song begins with two or three simple notes and then breaks into a jumble. Listen to one here.

Song Sparrows feed on seeds, fruits, and insects. They don’t visit feeders often, but if you scatter small seeds near a brush pile, raspberry patch, or shrubs, you might attract them for close observation. They hide their nests well, in tufts of grass, shrubs, or trees, from ground height to as high as 15 feet up. Pairs may stick together through the nesting season, but break up after the young are independent. If both birds return to the same nesting area the following year, they may raise young together again.

Song Sparrow


BALTIMORE ORIOLE

Female Baltimore Oriole feeding on cherries

Icterus galbula
Length: 6.7–7.5 in (17–19 cm)
Weight: 1.1–1.4 oz (30–40 g)
Wingspan: 9.1–11.8 in (23–30 cm)

Male Baltimore Oriole


RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD

Displaying Red-winged Blackbird

Agelaius phoeniceus
Length: 6.7–9.1 in (17–23 cm)
Weight: 1.1–2.7 oz (32–77 g)
Wingspan: 12.2–15.8 in (31–40 cm)

Adult female Red-winged Blackbird


COMMON GRACKLE

Common Grackle

Quiscalus quiscula
Length: 11.0–13.4 in (28–34 cm)
Weight: 2.6–5.0 oz (74–142 g)
Wingspan: 14.2–18.1 in (36–46 cm)

Adult Common Grackle feeding a fledgling


COMMON YELLOWTHROAT

Common Yellowthroat female

Geothlypis trichas
Length: 4.3–5.1 in (11–13 cm)
Weight: 0.3–0.3 oz (9–10 g)
Wingspan: 5.9–7.5 in (15–19 cm)

Common Yellowthroat male


YELLOW WARBLER

Yellow Warbler

Setophaga petechia
Length: 4.7–5.1 in (12–13 cm)
Weight: 0.3–0.4 oz (9–11 g)
Wingspan: 6.3–7.9 in (16–20 cm)

Singing Yellow Warbler


NORTHERN CARDINAL

Pair of Northern Cardinals

Cardinalis cardinalis
Length: 8.3–9.1 in (21–23 cm)
Weight: 1.5–1.7 oz (42–48 g)
Wingspan: 9.8–12.2 in (25–31 cm)

Juvenile Northern Cardinal.