Getting to know our wintertime bird friends

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This winter is bringing a wide variety of birds to Santa Fe backyards. Here are a few common questions I've been hearing lately.

Question: What is the large bird with bold black spots that I'm seeing on the ground around my house?

Answer: Most likely you're seeing a northern flicker. We have the red-shafted variety in New Mexico. The northern flicker is a large (13 inches long) brown-and-black woodpecker with a large white rump patch that is easy to see when the flicker flies away. In addition to the speckled chest, the flicker sports a distinctive black bib. The male has a red mustache; the female does not. Both have reddish feathers on the underside of the wings, visible in flight. Flickers often are seen on the ground probing for bugs. Ants make up 45 percent of their diet. They will come to suet feeders and also like peanut pieces and seed cylinders.

Question: At daybreak I see a small flock of little gray birds under my feeder. What are they?

Answer: Dark-eyed juncos are common winter visitors in New Mexico and often travel in small flocks. Although they can be seen at feeders throughout the day, it is quite common to see them first thing. They love to eat on the ground and prefer the white millet that gets kicked out of feeders by other birds. Juncos are gray overall with a bright white chest and belly.

Question: Why am I seeing robins and bluebirds in the winter?

Answer: Although often thought of as springtime birds, it's not uncommon to see them all year even in the winter. Some of the robins you're seeing now have been here all year. Others have migrated from farther north. Many bluebirds stick around all winter. Both robins and bluebirds can tolerate the cold as long as they can find a steady source of food and open water. That's why many people who see these birds in the winter have a heated birdbath or some other source of open water and have berry-producing shrubs and trees. Don't be surprised to see cedar waxwings among the flocks of bluebirds and robins. All three eat berries and sometimes stick together in winter flocks.

Question: How has the warm weather and lack of precipitation affected the birds?

Answer: It does seem likely that this dry spell could be a factor in why we are having such good bird activity at area feeders and birdbaths. Until a few months ago, we had a couple of good years of precipitation. The natural bounty and harvest were strong. In years when food is plentiful, birds are more prolific because they have more food: more seeds, berries and insects. It seems that when bird populations were happily expanding, we got hit with a real stretch of warm, dry weather. So, this recent weather pattern has helped to push hungry and thirsty birds more to backyard baths and feeders.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe, 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." She writes this monthly column for the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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