Nomadic Winter Birds

by Pat Jaquith

Bohemian Waxwings in freezing fog 1.17.2018

Many birds migrate from a winter home to take advantage of an abundance of insects, longer periods of daylight for scavenging, and increased success in raising a brood in the north. As winter arrives and insects become scarce their survival depends on their returning to a warm climate where insects are available.
Birds that depend on non-insect food sources and move from place to place in response to the availability of food sources, independent of season, are referred to as nomads. They often travel in flocks of the same species, searching out food, and moving on.

Red Crossbills drinking from a pan near my garden 10.02.2020

These Red Crossbills arrived in April and lived in my neighborhood all summer; I’d hear them in the tops of Douglas Fir trees and see them working on the cones; several times a day they would stop by for water. They seemed to leave soon after this visit. They raised a family – families? – here; I watched the young in first plumage lose their infantile down and change color. The males are red/red-orange colors; the females are olive green/yellowish. I’ve seen them visit my sunflower seed feeders in March of three different years; and in July, 2017, some young came in for water.

Evening Grosbeak 12.02.2019

A flock of Evening Grosbeaks paid a welcome visit to the maple beside our house to help us clean up an abundant crop of seeds. On November 22, 2020, a couple of friends and I were hiking in the vicinity of Smith Lake and came upon a flock of 30 that were busily tearing apart the seeds of a maple tree. I hoped they would follow me home – we still have lots of samaras to share!
Evening Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings seem to know where to find Mountain Ash berries and other trees with small fruits and seeds with crops big enough to share among the whole flock of their traveling companions. They arrive en masse, devour a big meal and off they go!

Pine Siskin fledgling 3.27.17

Some nomadic birds raise a brood whenever the spirit moves them, wherever they happen to be. I was surprised to find this fledgling on a snowbank near Lone Pine State Park . An adult male was nearby and responded to the calls of this young one by delivering food. Pine Siskins are seed eaters, so they can raise a brood without the presence of insects. The male delivers food to his mate as she warms the eggs and broods the young. I still wonder how this little family spent the ensuing cold night.

Cassin’s Finch pair 3..05.2017
Redpolls on Niger seed tube feeder 2.17.2018

The Redpolls favor Niger seed that are rich in oil and nutritious; they can devour an amazing amount in a short time. Their pointed little bills fit nicely into the small openings in the mesh bag as they deftly retrieve the small seeds. I have pictures of them on a suet feeder the following day. A flock of 25-40 would come swirling in, feed hungrily, and without apparent provocation, they’d depart in a rush of wings. They might return several times in the same day; other times a few days would pass before seeing them again. Redpolls don’t seem to irrupt every year; I hung a feeder for them in 2020, but the guests never arrived. Not to disappoint me, Chickadees, nuthatches (Red-breasted, White-breasted, and Pygmy), and Pine siskins benefited from the seeds! Cassin’s Finches raised a family in my neighborhood this summer, coming daily to get water. These colorful nomads are welcome when they arrive, but their appearance is always a surprise!

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