Some Common Minnesota Backyard Birds
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.
- Canada Goose
- Mourning Dove
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Downy Woodpecker
- Hairy Woodpecker
- Northern Flicker
- Pileated Woodpecker
- Blue Jay
- American Crow
- Black-capped Chickadee
- Barn Swallow
- Cedar Waxwing
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- White-breasted Nuthatch
- House Wren
- Gray Catbird
- Brown Thrasher
- European Starling
- American Robin
- House Sparrow
- House Finch
- American Goldfinch
- Chipping Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco
- Song Sparrow
- Baltimore Oriole
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Common Grackle
- Common Yellowthroat
- Yellow Warbler
- Northern Cardinal
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.
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.
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.
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. Hummingbirds 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.
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 a Red-bellied Woodpecker is on a tree holding the 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.
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.
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 be sure you can tell 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.
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. Large numbers can be seen migrating along Lake Superior from in August to October. Their flight over open areas is very predictable and not very fast, so they are a favorite prey of hawks. When we walk along beaches, we can sometimes find flicker wing and tail feathers, which are easy to identify because they are brilliant yellow on the underside.
Flickers sometimes visit birdbaths for drinking water. Overwintering flickers often visit suet feeders.
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 wider areas of their home range 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 where insects are. Their excellent hearing can detect chewing wood-boring beetle grubs deep in a tree.
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 one who incubates the eggs, but both parents feed and care for the chicks when they hatch. The chicks stay with their parents through the rest of the summer.
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 are 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 other crows living in the neighborhood which people to avoid. Researchers who band nestling crows have learned that neighborhood crows 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, but are suspicious of strangers. 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 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.
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 and popular 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.
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)
Barn Swallows, which eat flying insects and not much more, are extremely active, flying as much as 600 miles every day, simply covering their home area to catch prey. On the move, swallows can be tricky to identify, but if you notice long tail streamers, you can be sure one is a Barn Swallow.
Barn Swallows nest in cup nests that they build from mud on a supporting beam, light fixture, or other sturdy base. Each bird collects mouth-sized mud “pellets” to carry back to build the nest, which can end up being very heavy. Some people are thrilled to have Barn Swallows nesting on their house or garage. Others get annoyed, especially if the nest is directly above the porch or an area where the people spend a lot of time, because so many droppings collect beneath the nest. Fortunately, because Barn Swallows eat mostly insects, the droppings can be pretty easy to wash off with a hose.
To discourage Barn Swallows from nesting over a porch light or other inconvenient place, put a work glove or other thick but pliable object on top of the light as soon as the swallows return. To encourage them to nest on parts of the house that aren’t inconvenient for you, you can buy or construct a Barn Swallow nest platform. Carrol Henderson’s Woodworking for Wildlife book has plans for building one.
All Barn Swallows leave Minnesota in fall, headed for Central and South America. Because they fly so much even when they’re staying close to their nest, their bodies are always prepared. They migrate by day so they can eat on the move.
Length: 5.5–6.7 in (14–17 cm)
Weight: 1.1 oz (32 g)
Wingspan: 8.7–11.8 in (22–30 cm)
Cedar Waxwings are beautiful birds with extraordinarily sleek plumage (sometimes their bodies seem to sleek to be covered with feathers!), a brilliant yellow band at the tip of the tail, and (in older birds) a few or many tiny, bright red tips on some of their wing feathers. Their voices are so high-pitched that many people can’t hear them, but if you can, the voice has been described as sounding like tiny mice snoring.
Waxwings are extremely sociable, seen most of the year in flocks. Most kinds of birds are very territorial, staying especially far apart during the breeding season, but two or three pairs of Cedar Waxwings may nest in the same tree!
Waxwings eat insects and fruit. They never come to feeders and aren’t very common at birdbaths, but many people enjoy watching them from their own backyards if they have fruiting trees and shrubs. Waxwings don’t care what kind of fruit they eat, but when we make sure our yards offer a variety of plants native to Minnesota, we can be sure that the food will be healthy for them and for our local habitat. Waxwings love eating buckthorn and it doesn’t hurt them, but it is an invasive exotic plant that crowds out the native plants that offer berries over a wider time of the year. People working to improve their backyard or neighborhood habitat for birds try to eliminate buckthorn while planting a better variety of locally native plants.
Cedar Waxwings arrive in spring right about the time apple and cherry trees are blossoming, when they eat not just insects in the trees but also many of the flower petals. Most Cedar Waxwings leave Minnesota to winter in the southern states, Mexico, and Central America. Where fruit is abundant (especially mountain ash), a few Cedar Waxwings may remain even in northernmost Minnesota all winter. But winter is when a northwestern species, the Bohemian Waxwing, can appear in huge numbers in Minnesota. You have to look carefully to tell the two species apart.
Length: 4.3 in (11 cm)
Weight: 0.3–0.5 oz (8–13 g)
Wingspan: 7.1–7.9 in (18–20 cm)
Red-breasted Nuthatches specialize on eating seeds from pine and spruce cones. These trees produce a lot of cones some years and very few in other years, and where cones are available varies from year to year, so birds depending on seeds from cones are what we call irruptive species—species that may be extremely common where cones are abundant in one year while being much harder to find where cones are scarce, even if the exact same species were very common there in previous years.
People in some southern states never get to see these nuthatches except during “irruption years,” but Minnesotans get to see at least a few just about any time we search for them in coniferous woods or at feeders, where they take seeds (especially sunflower), nuts, and suet, and also like peanut butter. When given a choice, they prefer to grab the biggest food item available. If it’s too large to swallow, they’ll press it into a crevice on a tree branch or trunk and hammer off tinier pieces. As long as they have enough food, Red-breasted Nuthatches are extremely hardy.
Red-breasted Nuthatches usually nest in dead trees or dead parts of trees. They may dig out their own cavity or use a natural hole in a tree or one made by a chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, or other small bird. Whatever kind of cavity they end up with, both the male and female collect blobs of sticky resin from conifer trees to coat the outside of the entrance hole, which probably deters predators. They often use a tiny stick to apply the resin. Red-breasted Nuthatches are very unlikely to use nest boxes.
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 Nuthatches are larger than Red-breasted Nuthatches, and far less migratory. They spend most of their lives in deciduous forests and woods, and backyards with large shade trees and/or bird feeders. Their main diet is insects, but at feeders they take sunflower seeds, nuts, peanut butter, and suet.
Pairs of White-breasted Nuthatches stick together in the same areas for the winter, often arriving in a backyard together. But like chickadees, nuthatches usually grab a seed and fly to a tree to eat it or hide it to eat later, so we virtually never see both the male and female at the same moment.
White-breasted Nuthatches seldom excavate their own nest cavities. They use the rotted holes formed when limbs fall from trees and cavities made by other birds the year before the nuthatch moves in. They are much more likely than Red-breasted Nuthatches to use nest boxes.
Length: 4.3–5.1 in (11–13 m)
Weight: 0.3–0.4 oz (10–12 g)
Wingspan: 5.9 in (15 cm)
If your neighborhood has House Wrens and you have a bird house with an entrance hole about 1 1/8” to 1 1/2” in diameter, a male House Wren is very likely to fill it with sticks. Males seek out every possible nest site on their territory and fill each one with sticks. When a female arrives, he shows her all the possibilities. She chooses her favorite, clears out a small path through the sticks to the back, and builds her nest there. House Wrens are tiny and very vulnerable to predators, so they produce many chicks every year. In a year when food isn’t abundant, they may produce just 4 eggs in a nest, but when insects are plentiful, females lay 7 or 8 eggs and occasionally as many as 10! Both parents feed the young. After they fledge, the female may start a second nest at one of the alternative nest boxes the male had stuffed with sticks even as he continues caring for the fledglings. By the time a new clutch hatches, the first batch will be independent and the father can start feeding the new hatchlings.
House Wrens migrate starting in September. They mostly head to the southern states and northern Mexico. The first ones return to Minnesota in late April or early May.
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)
Catbirds take their name from their mew-like calls. Related to mockingbirds, their songs are a long string of imitations and other interesting calls with an occasional mew. The note quality is similar to Northern Mockingbird and Brown Thrasher songs, but catbirds make their string of imitations without repeating sounds. (Brown Thrashers sing their phrases twice and Northern Mockingbirds three or more times.).
Catbirds eat fruit and insects. They spend most of their time skulking in dense shrubbery and can be frustrating to get good looks at. Setting out an oriole feeder can lure them out. They don’t visit feeders for seeds and only rarely for suet, but are often drawn to oriole feeders for oranges and especially grape jelly.
Catbirds nest in dense shrubbery, often right at eye level, but we don’t usually find their nests until the leaves and catbirds are gone in fall. Minnesota catbirds winter near the Gulf of Mexico in the southern United States and also in Mexico and Central America. They return to Minnesota in early May.
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)
The state bird of Georgia is a fairly common backyard bird but usually goes unnoticed. When the first Brown Thrashers arrive in spring, in late April or early May, males start singing their wondrous song—a long string of imitations, each one repeated once. Those double phrases are very distinctive, and the long song bouts can last 10 minutes or more before they take a rest. Brown Thrashers sing right out in the open, usually from the top branches of a tall tree, but they don’t move much as they sing. Even when we pay attention to the song, we might have trouble figuring out where the bird is because he holds so still, his long narrow tail often held straight down. A Brown Thrasher actually made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in 1981 after a scientist named Donald Kroodsma showed that one individual had a repertoire of 2,400 distinct imitations!
The song may be wonderful, but thrashers don’t have many weeks to sing it, many shutting up as soon as they attract a mate.
Brown Thrasher nests, like catbird nests, are usually situated in dense shrubbery, at eye level or sometimes on the ground. As is true of many species in which males and females have identical plumage, both parents feed and care for the young. Males even take their turn incubating the 2–6 eggs. The nestlings can feather out very quickly, and may fledge when as young as 9 days old. Many predators lurk in the shrubby habitat thrashers nest in, so being able to leave the nest and flee may be an important survival strategy.
Most Brown Thrashers leave Minnesota by October. Once in a while, one winters in the state, even in the north—most of them head to the southern states for the winter. Brown Thrashers only rarely visit feeders, usually for fruit, jelly, or suet. They are more likely to turn up at bird baths, especially ones near shrubs or low trees to provide a quick escape.
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)
When Columbus arrived in America, European Starlings were nowhere to be found. Sixty starlings captured in Europe were released in Central Park in New York City in 1890, and another 40 the next year. These birds survived and raised young, and quickly spread out through the continent, making it to Minnesota by 1929.
Starlings nest in tree cavities, but cannot excavate their own so they take them over from woodpeckers and other birds. They also take over bluebird boxes, often killing the bluebirds or Tree Swallows nesting in them. So starlings pose a huge ecological problem for American birds even as their population is declining in their natural range.
Starlings visit bird feeders mostly for suet, though they do take some seeds. Some people don’t mind them, but there are times when they start crowding out the other birds from a feeder. That’s a good time to take in the suet feeders for a few days so they’ll disperse.
Starlings are related to mynahs and are excellent mimics. Their songs can be delightful to hear, and it’s fun to figure out what they’ve heard as they imitate cell phone ringtones, children playing in a playground, sirens, and other human-generated sounds along with bird songs and other natural sounds. The famous composer Mozart had a pet starling that he was very devoted to, who imitated Mozart’s music.
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.
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)
When Columbus arrived in America, House Sparrows were not here; they lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia. But homesick Europeans missed their cheeping calls, some people wanted to bring to America birds mentioned in the Bible, some people wanted them to come eat the seeds out of all the horse poop on city streets, and suddenly here they are. They nest in all kinds of places such as cavities, crevices in city lights and buildings, in barn rafters, and bird houses. Their aggressiveness in taking over bird houses has been a serious problem for American birds, especially Purple Martins and bluebirds.
Male and female House Sparrows look very different but both build the nest, incubate the eggs, and feed and care for the young.
House Sparrows often feed their young high-protein insects, but spend most of their lives eating seeds and grains. They’re opportunistic enough to take whatever they can find, from frogs to french fries.
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)
House Finches are not native to Minnesota. Once found strictly in Mexico and the American Southwest through the westernmost states, their pretty plumage and pleasant songs made them popular cage birds. It became illegal to keep native American songbirds as pets after the Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1918, but some pet stores kept selling them. Some pet stores on Long Island released their birds in fear of getting caught, and the released House Finches thrived and started breeding in the wild. They stayed on Long Island and the eastern states for decades, but then started expanding their range westward. Meanwhile, the Western birds were spreading north and east, too. Now House Finches can be found everywhere in the Lower 48 states. They were introduced in Hawaii by 1870 and are very common there.
House Finches come to feeders for various seeds; they also eat small fruits. Most seed-eating birds feed high-protein insects to their chicks, but House Finches don’t; they’re young do perfectly find on a vegan diet. Their feather color depends on their diet–if the foods they eat don’t have enough of some nutrients, their feathers will be paler and duller, more orange or even yellow than red. Females prefer the brightest red mates they can find, because the color indicates how good a male is at finding the best foods.
People without feeders sometimes enjoy House Finches nesting in wreaths and hanging baskets. Sometimes they get scared that the birds will drown if they water the flowers, but as long as they’re careful to direct the water to the edges of the basket so there isn’t a downpour on the chicks, there is seldom a problem.
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)
The gorgeous American Goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington, and for a long time, of Minnesota. When your grandparents or great grandparents were children, in 1961, the Minnesota legislature changed that, naming the loon the official state bird. Male goldfinches bear their brilliant yellow feathers for just a few months each year, molting in autumn into much drabber colors. In spring, those dull feathers are replaced with bright feathers one by one, giving each bird a fun patchwork look for a week or more.
Most finches eat mostly seeds but also insects. Goldfinches are exceptional. Their year-round diet is close to 100 percent seeds, and they feed their nestlings the same food in regurgitated form. Very few baby birds have enough protein to grow unless they are given at least some animal food but somehow baby goldfinches do just fine on this diet. When a cowbird lays an egg in a goldfinch nest, the little cowbird is doomed. It’s larger than baby goldfinches and so the parents tend to feed it even more than they feed their own nestlings, but like most songbirds, newly hatched cowbirds need a high-protein diet of insects. Without those, the cowbird usually dies in a few days.
Goldfinches visit our feeders for a variety of seeds; their favorites seem to be sunflower and, especially, nyjer. Goldfinch food also doubles as its primary nest-building material; goldfinches feed heavily on thistle and milkweed seeds, which are soft and downy. The bird eats the seed kernel and weaves the downy part of the seed into the nest. Thistles and milkweed plants don’t start to produce seeds until June and July, so even though male goldfinches sing and pairs form in early spring, they don’t actually nest until later than most birds. Nests can be so tightly woven that water doesn’t leak out.
Goldfinches don’t mate for life, and sometimes pairs split up and choose new mates in the same season, raising one brood of young with one mate and a second brood with another.
Length: 4.7–5.9 in (12–15 cm)
Weight: 0.4–0.6 oz (11–16 g)
Wingspan: 8.3 in (21 cm)
Chipping Sparrows are extremely common in many Minnesota habitats, but are tiny and inconspicuous, so many people don’t notice them, but their rusty cap and trim black eye line make them fairly easy to identify. The song is a long, dry trill, easy to ignore and not very musical, but it’s actually a very important song to learn, because many other birds’ songs are described in comparison to Chipping Sparrows. (You can listen to a Chipping Sparrow song here. A few other birds, including a robin, are singing in the background.).
Chipping Sparrows nest in backyards, often in spruce trees. They visit our feeders for a variety of seeds, especially sunflower and white millet, and also visit bird baths. They usually arrive in Minnesota in April and are gone by October. They don’t go down to the tropics: they migrate to the central and southern states.
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)
Nicknamed the snowbird, the Dark-eyed Junco is a handsome little sparrow. Individuals vary from dark slaty gray (almost black) to very soft brown, with older adult males the darkest of all, but they all have a white belly and white outer tail feathers, usually only noticable when they fly away.
Some juncoes live in Minnesota all winter, and some nest here in summer, but most winter further south and breed further north. We can see hundreds in many Minnesota neighborhoods during the peak of their migration in spring from March until April, and in autumn in October.
Juncoes visit feeding stations but usually prefer to take their seeds from the ground, so they are more likely to be seen under than in feeders. They eat a variety of seeds, especially sunflower and white millet.
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.
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)
Many people who never buy birdseed set out oranges every spring just to see Baltimore Orioles. These brilliantly colorful birds arrive at the very end of April or (more often) the first week of May. Their stunning plumage is matched by their rich, whistled song. Listen here..
During their migration, Baltimore Orioles are often attracted to orange halves or quarters, which you can place on a platform feeder, picnic table, or flat deck railing, or in an oriole feeder specially designed to hold oranges. They also eat sugar water. Oriole feeders can look just like a hummingbird feeder only with larger perches, and are often colored orange rather than red. (Never use food coloring in sugar water for orioles or hummingbirds.) Orioles also come to small dishes of grape jelly.
Orioles can show up just about anywhere in Minnesota to visit feeders during spring migration nest in Minnesota, but they’re much choosier about where to nest. They tend to choose a large shade tree, often near the shore of a lake, river, stream, or pond. The female constructs the nest, which is a distinctive woven purse.
Orioles nest once a year, and after the young fledge, the birds retreat from the nest area, often turning up in backyards again, only now much less obviously. They hide in dense tangles and shrubs where they can find insects and berries. Orioles are drawn to all kinds of summer fruits, including cherry trees.
Virtually all Baltimore Orioles leave Minnesota for the tropics by September, but occasionally one turns up at a feeder in very late fall or even winter!
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).
The Red-winged Blackbird is one of the most abundant of all native American birds, but unless you live very close to a cattail marsh in spring and summer, or a large farm growing grain and sunflower in late summer and fall, you might not see them in your yard very often.
Adult males return to Minnesota in March, weeks before adult females do. Every morning they settle in on a marsh to establish their territory, sitting on a cattail with wings spread to show off the brilliant red “epaulet” and calling loudly. During these morning displays, they are very aggressive, and stressed when another male comes anywhere near.
While the marsh is still frozen and little natural food is available yet, the birds don’t stay on the marsh all day. When they get hungry in the morning, they all abandon the marsh for a farm field where they can eat waste grain left from the previous year or newly planted seeds, or some other place with a lot of food. This is not where they’ll nest so none of them are trying to claim a territory. For each bird to eat as much as possible with as few interruptions, they all keep their wings closed with their black upper back and upper shoulder feathers hiding the red epaulets as much as possible. Except on the nesting territory, they are very much peaceful flocking birds.
The females don’t return until the marsh is thawed and natural food is available. At this point, the males don’t need to leave the marsh at all, and remain territorial all day. Females prefer to nest with the strongest males—the ones with the biggest territories. The males may be aggressive toward other males, but they are gentle and protective of their chicks, helping the females feed them. Females may raise one or two broods every summer.
Young are starting to grow independent and adults are losing interest in breeding right as more and more food sources are opening up away from the marsh. Now the adult males are growing less territorial and all the birds start gathering in large flocks. By September and October, large numbers are migrating over Hawk Ridge in Duluth, along Lake Superior. Virtually all Red-winged Blackbirds retreat to the central and southern states for winter, but occasionally one sticks around.
Red-wings are most likely to visit our bird feeders for seed, especially sunflower, during migration.
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)
The handsome Common Grackle’s feathers all take their color from a pigment called melanin, but the shiny purple head or very dark blue feathers don’t look like the body feathers because of how those feather cells are designed, to bounce off light, making them iridescent. Some of the wing feathers are also iridescent, glowing a bit pinkish or bronzy purplish. Females are a bit smaller than males and a little less iridescent. Both sexes have glittering yellow eyes.
When grackles first return in spring, males display, often right on people’s lawns. They puff out their feathers and make their tail appear as long and pointed as possible, the longer central feathers giving the keel-shaped tail a dramatic look even when they fly. When females return and start pairing off, the grackles become more secretive, at least while on their territories. They usually nest in a conifer near water. Like red-wings, away from the territory, they are flocking birds, especially where they eat. When they start appearing in huge flocks at bird feeders, many people bring those feeders in for the year. In summer after the chicks fledge and start following their parents about, there’s another backyard surge. Grackles feed on slugs, worms, insects, and other tiny creatures easily found in lawns, so they come to our yards whether we have feeders or not, and can become very abundant at bird baths. If many grackles are visiting yours, make sure to change the water every day or two.
Grackle flocks become larger and larger as summer ends, and are seen flying in large groups over Hawk Ridge every fall. Some flocks can remain all winter in farm areas, and one or two may remain in neighborhoods at feeders even into winter, but they are much quieter and more secretive than they will be come spring.
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)
Warblers are tiny birds who mostly nest in forests. The Common Yellowthroat may not have the word “warbler” in its name, but it’s every bit a warbler even though it’s seldom is found in forests. Yellowthroats nest in cattail marshes and in shrubs along the edges of fields and meadows. You couldn’t call them secretive because of their very loud, easy-to-hear song, but they are tricky to get a look at because they skulk inside that dense vegetation. If you quietly work your way close, though, a yellowthroat may come right out to scold you. It’s fun to see them, but kindest to step back after getting a good look. Male yellowthroats have a black mask rather like a raccoon; both males and females have brilliant yellow throats.
The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs, but both parents feed the young. And soon the fathers get too busy with that to be as territorial. In late summer you may not hear the songs, but the birds still make their noisy scolding calls.
Common Yellowthroats eat hardly anything but insects so never come to bird feeders, but do visit bird baths, especially in late July and August, especially if you have one or two shallow bird baths very close to or on the ground near shrubbery or raspberry brambles. Other warblers appear at these same low, shallow bird baths near hiding places at this time of year, giving us our best looks at these secretive birds.
All yellowthroats leave Minnesota for the winter, heading to the southern states, Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean islands. As tiny as they are, Common Yellowthroats may live a long time. One that was banded by a bird bander was recaptured, healthy, and released again when it was at least 11 1/2 years old.
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)
The beautiful Yellow Warbler arrives in Minnesota with other warblers in May, but disappears before most other warblers, some departing in late July and just about all by the end of August. None remain in the winter—they’re all in Mexico and Central America by then, feeding on insects.
Males sing a lovely Sweet, sweet, aren’t I sweet? song, often from low enough branches that they can be fairly easy to see. The rich chestnut streaking on males is the only non-yellow color in their feathers. Females are entirely yellow.
Yellow Warblers never come to feeders but sometimes nest in neighborhoods, especially near small streams with willow or alder trees.Females build the nest in the fork of a small tree or shrub, and if you are very patient, you may be able to see the nest at eye level. Never observe for long or return more than once, because your presence might make it easier for predators to find the nest, too.
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)
The Northern Cardinal is so noticeable and popular that it’s been named the official sate bird of seven states! Cardinals used to be rare in northern Minnesota, but now are nesting in most towns and cities in the state.
Adult male cardinals are very colorful; adult females are a soft brown, but also have a black mask surrounding their bright red bill. Young cardinals are brown but easy to distinguish from their mothers because they don’t have a black mask and the bill is dull. Adult cardinals eat mostly seeds and fruits, but feed their young mostly insects.
In winter, most singing cardinals are males. During the nesting season both the male and female sing, and her song is actually more complex than the male’s. A pair usually stays together throughout a breeding season, raising one or two broods of 4 or 5 chicks, but once in a while a pair “divorces” in summer. Pairs are more likely to split up in winter, but more than three quarters of all pairs stay together year after year. They build their nest in tangles and dense shrubs, often at eye level. Nestlings leave the nest before they can fly well, and are often so low to the ground that they are easy prey for outdoor cats. This is an important reason to keep your own cats indoors and to encourage your neighbors to do the same.
Cardinals visit feeders, mostly for sunflower and safflower seeds. They also come to bird baths to drink and bathe. So many birds drink from bird baths that it’s very important to keep the water clean.
Cardinals are non-migratory, but many nest in a different neighborhood than where they spend the winter.