With summer well and truly in the air, that means it’s birding season! This is the best time of year to see all kinds of different birds. Some are locals that stick around all year, and some are migratory birds that are just passing through for the summer. This backyard birding guide will help you get started identifying some of the more common birds in the area!
Even if you aren’t as big of a nerd as me, and feel the need to call your wife while she’s at work because you just saw a couple orioles, that’s fine! Just learning a little bit about these birds helps you appreciate them more. I’ve always found that if I know a little something about a plant or animal, even if it’s just what to call it, I have a much deeper appreciation and am far more aware of it. Check out our beginners guide to wildflowers for easy tips on identifying flowers!
If you want to be a backyard birding expert, the first, and most important thing you can do is buy the National Audubon Guide books! There is a whole series of these books, all of which I love. But for now, I’ll focus on the bird books. The National Audubon books are the best resource I have ever found for learning about and identifying plants and animals. They have beautiful, glossy, high definition pictures, as well as useful descriptions.
The books are laid out in a very user-friendly way that makes it easy to find the bird you are looking for without having to be an ornithologist. Even if you don’t necessarily want to use the books as identification tools, it’s really nice to just page through them and look at all the wonderful photographs. My parents got us a bunch of these books when we were growing up and I can still remember flipping through those pages all the time.
Now, let’s get into birding with some common local birds that you can regularly see by your house!
American Gold Finches
These guys are pretty easy to identify because, as the name suggests, they’re bright yellow. The males are more brightly colored with bright yellow breasts and heads with black patches on their forehead, wings and tails. The females are a more dull, greenish yellow color. Gold finches have a lovely voice and can be heard singing in most suburban back yards.
These guys can usually be seen hopping around on people’s lawns, looking for worms and other insects. They are easily identifiable by their gray-brown backs and wings, with a rusty orangish-red colored underside. When they are flying away, you can see a small white path on either side of their tails which can help you identify them. Robins can be pretty territorial towards each other, and during the mating season you can see males chasing each other and fighting.
Mourning doves are another common site in American backyards as well as on roadside power lines. They have a soft, sandy gray colored body with a long, pointed tail. Mourning doves are a slightly smaller than a pigeon, but are a similar shape. Their low mournful call is what gives them their name. Mourning dove’s diet consists mainly of seeds, so they love agricultural fields, especially sunflower fields.
Red Winged Black Bird
As the name would suggest, they are a black bird, with a red patch on their wings… duh. Sometimes the patch can be more orange or yellow. They live predominantly in marshes and wetlands, so they are a common sight near water features. The males are very territorial and can be seen puffing up their chest and opening up their wings slightly as they make their loud, territorial trilling sound (seen below).
Black Capped Chickadee
Chickadees are one of my favorite little song birds. These stalwart little birds stick around all winter long (so that scores them toughness points in my book), feeding off of seeds, berries, and insects. They are also extremely friendly and curious birds. I’ve had them land on me twice while I was hunting! I took it as a sign of good luck.
They can often be seen in suburban areas, clinging to the sides of trees (rather than perching on top of branches) looking for insects. They have a black head, with a white cheek patch. They have blueish gray wings and backs and a dull white underside. Side note, they are exceedingly difficult to try and photograph because they are constantly fluttering around and don’t sit still for more than a couple seconds… hence why I had to use a stock photo.
Nuthatches, like chickadees, are year-round residents that are usually seen clinging to the sides of trees and branches (rather than perching on top). They also look pretty similar to chickadees. Nuthatches have black capped heads with blue-gray backs and white undersides. The most distinct difference is the nuthatch’s bill is notably longer than the chickadee’s. Nuthatches feed mostly on nuts, seeds, and insects that they find in cracks in tree bark.
Hairy woodpeckers are one of the most common backyard woodpeckers. They are a little smaller than a robin and have a black back and wings with white spots and dull-white undersides. They have black and white bands on their head with two little red spots on the back of their heads.
They can be found clinging to the sides of trees, pecking away, trying to find insects hiding beneath the bark. After they excavate a small hole with their beak, they use their extremely long, flexible tongue to extract the tasty bugs.
Now we have moved on to some less common birds. If you catch a glimpse of an oriole, you’re having a good day… that is, if you’re a total nerd like me who judges how good their day is based on the different types of birds you see… no shame.
Orioles are pretty easy to identify. They have a black head, back, and wings with their distinctive, bright orange breast and rump patch. I have mostly seen them in deciduous trees near a water feature. Orioles eat a variety of foods including insects, nectar, and fruits. One of the easiest ways to see an oriole is actually to put slices of fruit (particularly oranges and berries) out by your bird feeder. That’s how we usually see the orioles by our house, but we have also seen a handful while we’re out on hikes or when I’m on a job site. Pro tip: nail down the orange slices or secure them in some way so the birds don’t kick them off of the feeder.
Rose-Breasted Gross Beaks
Rose breasted gross beaks are another uncommon bird that’s pretty exciting to see. They’re less brilliantly colored than the orioles, but they have a much better singing voice. I have seen the rose-breasted gross beak’s song described as “like a robin that took singing lessons”. Besides their beautiful singing voice, they’re pretty nice to look at. They’re black and white with a conspicuous, rosy red patch on their breast (hence the name). They also have a short, heavy bill that they used for breaking open seeds (their preferred food source).
I hope this little guide helps you guys identify some of the birds in your backyard! Even if you don’t get as into it as I do, I hope knowing a little something about these different birds gives you a greater appreciation for the diversity of bird life that’s fluttering around your backyard. Happy birding!