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Winter Songbirds

Stories from the Coast

Winter Songbirds

by MCHT Land Steward Kirk Gentalen

Monday, February 26, 2018

A participant on a recent tracking outing mentioned how in winter Maine forests can be quiet as far as songbirds are concerned. “Huh” was my creative reply (and it took me way too long to come up with that one).

I think I would go with “quieter” as opposed “quiet” (I know – nitpicky!). Sure, many species that nest in local woods headed for warmer climes months ago. However, during the calm between storms or wind bursts, you’ll hear overwintering songbirds communicate with each other and add much-appreciated chatter to the woods.

Folks with feeders (FWF) know that songbirds like Chickadees, Nuthatches, Titmice, Cardinals, Jays, Crows and Juncos (among others) will visit all winter as long as the feed keeps getting replaced. These same species can be found in the woods well away from any feeding stations where they are joined by songbirds that seldom go to humans for grub.

“Shivering to generate heat is a part of the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s winter survival strategy, and I observed two different individuals shivering hard while looking for food during a significant freeze earlier in winter.”

Red crossbill

Golden-crowned Kinglets, all 4.5 inches of them, spend the winter living off insects they find between conifer needles and under bark. Shivering to generate heat is a part of their winter survival strategy, and I observed two different individuals shivering hard while looking for food during a significant freeze earlier in winter.

Joining the kinglets on peninsula this winter has been a small number of Brown Creepers, a songbird that readily hunts for insects in nooks and crannies in tree bark. On sunny days small flocks (10-15) of Cedar Waxwings have been seen in flight as well as larger flocks (30-50) of overwintering American Robins. What a winter for Robins and Juncos!

On most trips to a nearby decaying deer (I spend way too much time with that deer) I have been hearing and seeing a pair of finch species known as Crossbills. Earlier in the winter small flocks (up to 5) of White-winged Crossbills came through searching for bounties of spruce cones, but now it appears that Red Crossbill is the species that may hang around for a bit. Both species of Crossbills have upper and lower bills (or beaks or mandibles) that don’t line up when their bill is closed. This is an adaption to access seeds in conifer cones. Crossbills will stick their bills between scales of a cone and then close (or cross) their bills, which in turn pries the scales apart. The crossbills then use their sticky tongues to extract seeds that the cone holds.

“Not necessarily known for their harmonic ditties, Corvids (family Corvidae) such as Ravens, Crows, and Blue Jays are a family that (somewhat surprisingly) also falls into the category of songbirds.”

Another adaptation Crossbills have is a pocket-like structure midway down their throats called an esophageal diverticulum. This pouch is used to store seeds which then can be digested during severe weather episodes allowing the crossbills to feed without “going outside” in a sense. Crossbills are songbirds built for Maine winters!

Not necessarily known for their harmonic ditties, Corvids (family Corvidae) such as Ravens, Crows, and Blue Jays are a family that (somewhat surprisingly) also falls into the category of “songbirds. ” In other words, they have a syrinx to make vocalizations as all songbirds have. Corvids are known for their mobbing behavior where they gang up on any predator, often owls, that they come across. Recently Blue Jays have drawn my attention to Northern Goshawks, which hunt songbirds. Good use of your syrinx, Jays!

A version of this story originally appeared in Kirk’s “Nature Bummin’” column in The St. George Dragon.

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