Naturalist’s Notes: Backyard Birds in Winter

Steller's jay

By Beth Dodd:


Almost every morning, our family puts out food for our backyard birds. We enjoying watching them flit in and out as we prepare to start our day.  Our cats even get in on the bird watching, glaring through the French doors with tails twitching. I’m sure that their musings about the birds are murderous compared with my own thoughts.


Our daily cast of characters includes mountain chickadees, grey jays, and Steller’s jays. Occasionally, juncos, black-billed magpies, or even a white-breasted nuthatch comes to call. I am amazed at the resilience of these creatures. When many other birds have left for a warm winter on the Gulf Coast or in Mexico, these species survive the long, harsh winter in the mountains.


A small flock of mountain chickadees is usually waiting and watching for our morning hand-out of black sunflower seeds. These are nervous, busy little birds, with a soft grey back, buff breast, a black throat and cap, white cheeks, and a jaunty white stripe over each eye.


Keeping warm is a constant challenge for these small birds. They are only five or six inches long and weigh as much as half a dozen pennies. They constantly search for seeds and berries, even hanging upside down in their quest for food. They also eat stored seeds that they gathered from the forest or a feeder. In the summer, they add insects to their diet, but these are hard to come by in the winter. If finding food becomes too difficult, they may move to a lower elevation until spring.


While even a bird enjoys a free meal, mountain chickadees have a few tricks for fighting the cold besides keeping their bellies full. On sunny mornings, they gather a little extra warmth by sunbathing on an exposed perch out of the wind. They are also able to lower their metabolic rate on cold nights, dropping their body temperature and slowing their heartbeat to conserve energy. 


Unlike some other birds that cuddle together to keep warm, mountain chickadees often spend the cold winter nights alone, sheltering under tree bark or foliage. Late in the season, breeding pairs come together and begin searching for a suitable nesting site like a woodpecker hole. Since they are cavity nesters, they will also use nest boxes. If you offer them soft clumps of dog or cat fur, they may use it to line their nests.


In contrast to the nervous little chickadees, who grab a single seed and dart off, grey jays are big and bossy. Scattering the chickadees as they land at our feeder, they scoop up several pieces of food before flapping away. Several years ago, we discovered that the grey jays and their cousins, the Steller’s jays and magpies, love to eat dry cat food. We put some out every morning with the sunflower seeds.


While I’m sure our observant cats would rather see the birds become cat food than eat the cat food, this is not a surprising menu choice for the birds. Grey jays are curious and aggressive omnivores. They will eat anything that comes their way, including seeds, fruit, insects, mushrooms, carrion, small mammals like mice, or even the eggs and nestlings of other birds.


Grey jays are found in the U.S. only in places with snowy boreal forests like Colorado, but they are widespread across Canada and are also called Canada jays. They are dark gray above and light gray below, with a black or dark grey patch on the back of their head forming a partial hood. They are medium sized birds, double the length and five times the weight of a chickadee at 10 inches and 2.5 ounces. No wonder they scare away the little ones!


Grey jays seem to thrive in the cold. They have incredibly thick, fluffy plumage that they puff up in cold weather, protecting their legs, feet, and nostrils from the chill. They begin nesting as early as February or March, when there are no obvious sources of food. They rely on stored food stuck to the bark of trees with saliva to get them through.


Young grey jays are out of the nest by April, before many other birds have even returned from their winter migrations. In spite of starting early, the parents only raise one brood a year, compared with two or even three broods raised by other species. Perhaps this allows them more time to store food for the next winter.  


The Steller’s jays arrive at our feeder with noisy calls, kek-kek-kek-kek-kek, or making raspy screeches. They are excellent mimics and may imitate other birds, or even squirrels, cats or dogs. One of our more colorful winter residents, they are slightly larger than the grey jays, but with a deep blue body and a black neck and black crested head. When they tilt their heads back and forth, the stiff feathers in their crests bob and accent their movements, giving them a comical look.


Like the grey jays, Stellar’s jays are aggressive omnivores and see nothing wrong with robbing other birds or raiding their nests to get an easy meal. These birds are bold and can often be found in campgrounds cleaning up the goodies left by the campers. They breed primarily in dense evergreen forests, and generally prefer low to moderate elevations, although they may be seen up to treeline. They are typically found at lower elevations than grey jays, but in my backyard I am fortunate enough to have both.

Stellar’s jays like to eat acorns and pine seeds and keep a secret stash of them to feed on during the winter. They have a distendable throat pouch that helps them carry acorns and other nuts. They prefer to bury their seeds one by one, and you might see them pounding with their beaks to open the shells. They have excellent memories and are able to find most of their food when they look for it later. However, some seeds remain undiscovered and grow into new trees in the spring. Like the chickadees, they may move down the mountain if finding food become too hard over the winter and return in the spring.

(photo by Beth Dodd)