Backyard birding questions for winter in New Mexico

By Anne Schmauss
For The New Mexican
Posted 1/24/20

We're seeing lots of birds in area backyards this winter. Maybe because we've had some true winter weather this year and birds need a bit of help surviving the cold and snow. Here are a few questions we've been hearing in the last week or so.

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Backyard birding questions for winter in New Mexico

Posted

We're seeing lots of birds in area backyards this winter. Maybe because we've had some true winter weather this year and birds need a bit of help surviving the cold and snow. Here are a few questions we've been hearing in the last week or so.

I thought robins were a spring and summer bird. Why am I seeing flocks of them right now?

New Mexico is south for many robins. If they can find open water and food sources, they can make it through our relatively mild winters. Even when I lived in Minnesota, I'd occasionally see a small flock of robins near a neighborhood creek that had a bit of open water near the icy edges. The vegetation near the creek included plenty of berry-producing shrubs and trees. The same is true here. You'll see flocks of robins feasting on berries like hawthorne, pyracantha and juniper and crowding around your heated birdbath.

I'm seeing what looks like streaked goldfinches at my thistle feeder. What are they?

You're likely seeing pine siskins. This brown, finely streaked member of the finch family has a narrow, pointy bill and, like goldfinches, they do have some yellow coloring. Pine siskins have some yellow on the wings and tail. They are nomadic and famously disloyal to your feeder offerings. One day you'll have a flock of 30 and the next day they move on. Or, maybe you keep them all winter. There's no telling with siskins. Although sometimes seen year-round in New Mexico, they are most numerous in the winter. Pine siskins love thistle (nyjer seed) the best.

What is the tiny olive-gray bird with the little red crown I've seen at my suet feeder?

This can only be the ruby-crowned kinglet. Smaller than chickadees, kinglets are constantly in motion.

They specialize in eating insects, even in winter (if they can find them), gleaning prey from tree branches and buds. Most common in our area in the winter, it's not unusual to see them at your suet feeder or on a tree trunk eating spreadable suet (bark butter). The male's ruby crown is visible only when the crest is raised.

Doesn't feeding birds in the winter make them dependent upon humans?

No, it doesn't. Even in cold weather, birds mostly eat from natural food sources. What we offer at our feeders is only a supplement but can be very important in cold, snowy or icy weather. With habitat destruction, climate change and other human-caused threats to birds, feeding is a small, beneficial step. Planting plenty of native vegetation can also be helpful to birds. In addition to eating the berries and seeds they produce, native plants provide good cover and nesting spots. The more we can do to restore and support native habitat, the better for all our creatures, including ourselves.

I wish you and your birds a healthy, peaceful new year.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of "For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard" and "Birdhouses of the World."

This article first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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