Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia and the Snowbirds

This blog – text and photos – are by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia and her colleague Alex Brechbill will be wrapping up their year with us next week.  It’s been a fantastic year, and we will miss their thoughtful observations and good humor. 

Last month I got the chance to blabber about my love of November and autumn, but now I can talk about something I love about winter! We’ve actually had snow this year (I haven’t gotten much these last couple years living in Kansas), and while that’s not what I’m going to talk about, I do think the colder weather is what brought this particular piece of winter to my back patio.

I’m talking about snowbirds! Dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows to be exact. These little sparrows nest far to the north during the summer, and while they do come south for the winter, they stop just at the leading edge of the cold, sometimes not even reaching as far south as Kansas during warm winters. They can be found in mixed flocks pecking around on the ground, especially under bird feeders, for seeds throughout the colder months, twiting and seeting away.

One of the house sparrows I usually end up with feeding at my bird feeder, all fluffed up against the cold.

I mention these birds because they arrived on the Platte today (Dec. 4)! Or at least, that’s when I noticed them for the first time. I have a bird feeder set up just outside the kitchen windows, and I’ve been supplying the local birds with black oil sunflower seeds for a couple months now. The vast majority of visitors have been nonnative house sparrows, so imagine my delight when I noticed a little group of tree sparrows had stopped for a snack this morning! Shortly afterward, a small group of juncos joined them, and I knew immediately that winter had officially arrived.

An American tree sparrow searching the snow for seeds.  As a bird lover, it was very exciting to find them at the bird feeder this morning.
Dark-eyed juncos have a lot of personality, flittering around in large flocks and standing out against the snow.  White tail feathers flash every time they fly off.

While several species of birds certainly fly south for the winter, with all members of their species fleeing to Central or South America for warmer climes and plenty of food, you might be surprised at how many of our local birds actually stick it out. For example, robins can be found in most portions of their range year-round, and I’ve witnessed more than once a robin singing on especially warm winter days. Meadowlarks are another species that can actually be seen in much of their range for the entire year.

This meadowlark’s yellow breast stands out even more brightly against the snow than it does in the summer prairie.  That’s probably why it took me forever to get a photo where it was actually showing it off.  Four or five have been hanging out in the yard around our shop since November.

Now, it’s very likely that the robins and meadowlarks seen in the winter aren’t the exact same birds that nest in that location in the summer. These species do migrate to an extent, with their range shifting south during the winter months, leaving their northern reaches free of birds and inhabiting new areas in the south. However, theirs are not migrations of thousands of miles. Instead, birds only move a few hundred miles at most. The behavior of these birds also changes drastically during the winter months. They are much more reclusive, and since the males aren’t singing constantly, they certainly seem to disappear.

So while juncos and tree sparrows have a reputation as cold-enduring species, I think it’s worth giving our other local birds some recognition. They’re here during the winter as well, they’re just not as obvious about it.

This entry was posted in Hubbard Fellowship by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

2 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia and the Snowbirds

  1. I too love to see the ‘snowbirds’. One interesting behavior I have noticed is American Tree Sparrows feeding on Indiangrass seeds. They will fly up and grab the stem of the Indiangrass seed stalk, several inches below the seed head. The stem will bend over, and the bird will sidle over to the seed head and peck at the seeds. Our prairies can be great bird feeders!


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