Birds & Birding

Snow Birds: 10 Birds to Look for in Winter

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Photo © Tom Benson / Flickr
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Photo © Tom Benson / Flickr

Attention new birders: I have news for you. Winter is not the off-season.

Sure, it’s absolutely frigid outside, a meager 20 species is a good day, and by the time January rolls around you never want to see another raft of ducks for as long ask you live. (Okay, at least not until next winter.)

But despite the obvious challenges, winter birding is incredibly rewarding. Birds are easy to find in the leafless trees, trails and parks are quiet, and your checklists abound with many species that can only be found in the United States in winter. Plus, thanks to shortened daylight hours you don’t have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to be out before the sunrise.

Check out our picks for 10 great birds you’ll only find in winter, and share your favorite winter birds in the comments below. (And if you can’t get outside, watch the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ontario feeder cam to see some winter birds up close!)

  1. Red & White-winged Crossbills

    Photo ©
    Photo © Jason Crotty / Flickr

    Finding Red Crossbills and White-Winged Crossbills is one challenge — the second is getting close enough to actually to see their twisted bills, which they use to prize seeds out of pine cones. Males of both species are a brilliant scarlet, while the females are olive green. You can tell them apart by the white dappling on the wings (called wing bars), on the White-Winged Crossbill.

    Both species are found year-round throughout the Rockies, and throughout the mid to northern U.S. in the winter. Listen closely if you happen upon a flock of Red Crossbills — the species has 10 distinct call-types, and different sub-populations specialize on different types of conifers.

  2. Northern Goshawk

    Northern Goshawk are used as an indicator species since they are at the top of the food chain.   Photo © Bruce Taubert
    Northern Goshawk are used as an indicator species since they are at the top of the food chain. Photo © Bruce Taubert

    Few Northern American raptor species are as likely to initiate a tick-the-bird-or-die-trying twitch like the Northern Goshawk. The largest North American accipiter, these powerful, elusive hawks hunt rabbits, hares, squirrels, and other large birds in dense forests, zipping through the trees at high speeds. They’re found year-round throughout the Rockies, and throughout the mid to northern U.S. in the winter. Adults are distinctive, with heavily barred chests, steel grey back and wings, and deep red eyes. But be careful — juvenile goshawks look similar to Coopers and Sharp-Shinned hawks.

  3. Snow Bunting

    Photo © Kelly Colgan Azar / Flickr
    Photo © Kelly Colgan Azar / Flickr

    The subtly beautiful, sparrow-sized Snow Bunting breeds on the high Arctic tundra, where they nest in rock crevices lined with feathers, fur, grass, and moss. Their winter range extends to the northern half of the U.S., where they’re often seen foraging in flocks in snowy winter fields.

    Male Snow Buntings have to put in a bit of work to achieve their striking black-and-white breeding plumage. After their late summer molt, the plumage on their back and wings is brownish-black. Males wear off the brown-colored feather tips by rubbing themselves against the snow, resulting in pure-black coloration by the time the breeding seasons starts.

  4. Lapland Longspur

    Photo © Alaska Region US Fish & Wildlife / Flickr
    Photo © Alaska Region US Fish & Wildlife / Flickr

    Like the Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspurs breed high in the Arctic and then winter in large flocks, some as many as 4 million strong, in the open fields of the northern U.S. Males are distinctive, with jet-black masks, reddish necks, and a yellow eye stripe. Females are much more tricky to identify, with brown, streaky, sparrow-like plumage. The “longspur” in this species’ name comes from an elongated claw on the hind toe.

  5. Ross’s & Snow Geese

    Photo © Howard Ignatius / Flickr
    Photo © Howard Ignatius / Flickr

    Stop and take a closer look the next time you pass a lake brimming with Canada Geese — hidden among them might be a few Ross’s Geese or Snow Geese. Both species are snowy white, with black wing tips and pink beaks. They breed on the Arctic coasts and winter in just a few spots in the U.S., where you can find them in flocks together anywhere other winter waterfowl and geese congregate, including open lakes and agricultural fields.

    The species are difficult to tell apart unless they’re sitting side by side: The Ross’s Goose is smaller and more delicate, with a shorter neck. Meanwhile, the Snow Goose has a larger, chunkier bill with a dark line, or “grin patch” near the gape.

  6. Bohemian Waxwing

    Photo ©
    Photo © Janet D'Errico / Flickr

    Just one of three waxwing species in the world, the Bohemian Waxwing breeds in northwestern Canada, occasionally erupts down into the northern U.S., mostly in the west. Named after gypsies, Bohemian Waxwings roam large distances in winter to search for berries, other fruit, and insects. Be careful not to confuse them with the similar-looking Cedar Waxwing: Bohemians have red and yellow wingtips, a dark black chin, rust-colored feathers under the tail, and a more greyish coloration.

  7. Evening Grosbeak

    Photo © Claudine Lamothe / Flickr
    Photo © Claudine Lamothe / Flickr

    Garish, unmistakable, and awesome — meet the Evening Grosbeak. Like the crossbills, these finches of the northern conifer forests often “irrupt” father south into the continental U.S. in winter in search of food. Flocks are common at feeders, where you can get an up-close look at their gaudy coloration: Males are an eye-popping yellow, with black swings, and a bold eyebrow. Females are more subdued, but have a fantastic, green-colored beak.

  8. Snowy Owl

    Photo © Don Bindler
    Photo © Don Bindler

    Serious birders still swoon when they think back on the winter of 2013-2014, when thousands of Snowy Owls irrupted into the lower 48, turning up as far south as Florida and the Bahamas. Similar — if not quite as epic — owl irruptions occur roughly every 3 to 5 years. But even in the off years, a few Snowy Owls still push into the northern U.S. Keep an eye on your local eBird listings for sightings near you, and read birder Tim Boucher’s advice for taking advantage of these winter invasions.

  9. Rosy-Finches

    Photo © Steve Valasek / Flickr
    Photo © Steve Valasek / Flickr

    The three rosy-finch species — Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black — are Rocky Mountain winter specialties. The Black and Gray-crowned are found throughout the west, while the Brown-capped is only found in Colorado and northern New Mexico. All three species are poorly studied by scientists because their breeding ranges are small and incredibly remote.

    Check eBird for common locations, as many flocks return to the same well-stocked winter feeders each year, and review some photos before you go. (The three species aren’t difficult to tell apart when they’re side-by-side, except when a flock of 50 of them is milling frantically around a feeder.)

  10. Hoary & Common Redpolls

    Photo © nebirdsplus / Flickr
    Photo © nebirdsplus / Flickr

    Another irruptive bird and feeder favorite, Hoary and Common Redpolls are well adapted to life in frigid arctic climates. They’re found year-round in northern Canada, where Common Redpolls sometimes burrow into the snow to stay warm. Hoary Redpolls have feathers on a greater extent of their bodies than other birds, and sometimes if temperatures get too warm they’ll pluck out their own feathers to help regulate their temperature.

    Hoary Redpolls are the rarer of the two — look for pale birds with less streaking hiding in flocks of Common Redpolls.

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative fieldwork and research conducted by Conservancy’s scientists around the world. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine has battled swarms of mosquitos, steep trails, and the wilds of the Papua New Guinea rainforest — all for a good story. When not writing about conservation science, she enjoys having far-flung adventures, long hikes, and waking up at dawn to bird. More from Justine

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What are your favorite winter birds?

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  1. Fantastic piece. (I’ve been procrastinating on my winter bird watching so far, but now I’m thinking it’s time to get serious! 🙂

  2. My husband and I enjoy winter birding. Living in Central Illinois, we feel blessed that we are able to see Lapland Longspurs on a regular basis during the winter, and Snow Buntings on occasion. Snow geese also are commonly seen here during the winter. Two or three years ago we were fortunate enough to see a Common Redpoll at our feeders.

  3. We have 3 different bird feeders and we are getting a variety of different birds. But the favorite one is the cardinal. But we have a couple of red tailed hawks, and several sparrows, 30 to 40.

  4. Thanks for sharing this!!! Now I’m excited to get out in this weather!!! I hope to see some of these that might stray to the northeast US!!!

  5. My favorite winter bird is the Red Cardinal. I have been seeing Robins this year and in winter of 2015. I live in Connecticut and I have never seen any of the beautiful birds in the winters here.

  6. I live high in the Rockies just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, CO and have literally hundreds of gray crowned rosy finches at my feeders every day. They come in a huge swarm and fight for the food. I have to fill my large open feeder on a daily basis. Get expensive, but they are so pretty.

  7. Cardinals, Downy Woodpecker and Juncos. Thanks for all the good work the Conservancy does. My wife and I have been members for decades.

  8. Pileated woodpecker
    Rosy breasted woodpecker
    Snowy Owl
    Cooper’s Hawk
    Bald Eagle
    Yellow-eyed sea duck

  9. The Hoary and Common Redpolls are my favorite because they are well adapted to life in frigid arctic climates.

  10. I am excited about birding. Thank you for opening my eyes. This is the first year I have taken time and noticed with great intensity, the birds, God’s great gift to the world.

    Dian Carr
    Retired social studies teacher

  11. WB and RB nuthatches, BC chickadees, Northern Flicker, Downy woodpecker, Pileated woodpecker, and Blue Jays, Pine siskins, Dark eyed Juncoes, B.waxwings, These come to the feeders.

  12. I love the juncos who feed in the yard beneath my feeders and on my garage roof just outside my window here. This year for the first time I saw brown/buff juncos in addition to the usual slate colored ones. I have also seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers that are moving into our area. And there are so many more raptors around all winter this year. I live in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. You seem to have concentrated more on Western birds in this piece.

  13. My only winter birds are common raven and willow ptarmigan . Come spring I can add snow bunting, Lapland longspurs, snowy owl, and both species of red poll to name a few.

  14. Saw a different one yesterday. There were several of them, thought at first they were yellow rumped warblers, but I’m not sure. Very much like a snow bunting we have them regularly), but some yellow. We are in Northeastern Canada and it was just after the storm in eastern US. Not one we’ve seen before. I could have sworn I saw a reddish patch on one of their heads??
    Not really any favorites, love them all, feed them all.

  15. Living near a river, my favorite winter bird sightings of the past few years have mainly been in or near the water — mergansers, grebes, buffleheads, and bald eagles. Nothing yet this year though!

  16. the simple little junco is my fave.

    Do goldfinches overwinter in Northern PA? we are one mile south of Lk Erie, and I’m seeing someone who resembles one of our summer finches but with brownish feathers?

  17. My personal favorite is the cardinal. I love to watch when the male feeds the female. What a care giver!

  18. The usual & ordinary ones are good to see. Chickadees, wrens, mourning doves and especially the female cardinal, all make me smile. At age eighty-three and widowed, I enjoy the feathered beauty. Those that come to the feeders and to the single open water bird-bath [that has a de-icer] …all make me smile. Juncos. yes. Blue jays not so much. When the snow geese fly over head , that is a special thing to see. There is a good place for thousands in Lancaster County,Pa.

  19. I love chickadees, nut hatches, juncos—they are very entertaining at the bird feeder. I also am fascinated by blackbirds as they for a large flock in the winter-a murmuration–I have experienced this several times’ Sometimes silent with only the sound of their wings and sometimes very noisy!! Fascinating!!

  20. What a day I’ve had with birds! The juncos (we call them winter birds here in rural Colorado) are so brave and adventurous . . .they hardly fly off the feeder as I tromp around feeding. The is a white headed sparrow, all by itself, that shows up each morning. The doves are filling the valley with song. Two house finches today, and a pair of birds I didn’t recognize . . .finch sized but much differently colored. Then while walking the dogs in town I got up close to a white breasted nuthatch showing off by walking upside down and peering at me. Last week there was a flock of magpies in the Russian olives (didn’t know they formed flocks) and this morning heard my the first Western Meadowlark of the season!

  21. Each and everyone of these birds are beautiful , amazing , and awrsome. I remember one the north side I use to hear the wood pecked and how I miss that. Somehow the other day I saw a black and white wood pecker. Thank you for your display of the birds.

  22. I’ve been enjoying watching red headed woodpeckers in Longmeadow, MA (Fannie Stebbins) as well as a juvenile harrier in the fields near Arcadia (MassAudubon) and the Oxbow.

  23. Oh my, where do I start! Snow & Ross Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, American Widgeon, Canvasback, Hooded Mergansers, Long-billed Curlew, Cedar Waxwing, Harlequin Ducks, Northern Shoveler, White Pelicans!

  24. I have always loved the way cardinals look in the winter, particularly against the snow. One winter I spotted an albino cardinal at a feeder, which was incredible to see.

  25. Excellent and thank you for putting names to the birds We are not all David Attenborough or even as clever as you ,thank you and keep up the great work!

  26. Have seen only the Snow Bunting,Evening Grosbeak and Common Red Poll here on Gray Road in Ithaca and I have been feeding and watching for 55 years. My favorite is the Carolina Wren and I have not seen one so far this winter. I did have the Common Red Shafted Flicker eating at the feeder yesterday for the first time. Usually I see them out in the yard.

  27. I don’t know this little guy’s name! I am trying to find out. He’s alone. He has a resemblance to a wren. His colors are brown with a little red. His slim tail sticks straight up!! His voice is distinctive and insistent. He arrives early, at or just before sunrise and he lets me know he’s here. He leaves then comes back later to dine alone. He likes chopped nuts. He is a cutie.

    Then of course, my beloved cardinals. What else can I say?

  28. Bohemian Wax Wings are here, enjoying the last of the Mountain Ash berries

  29. Lots of evening grosbeaks and redpolls here, northern michigan. Lots of pine grosbeaks too! Thanks for the article!

  30. I saw beautiful bluebirds yesterday for the first time. They had vibrant blue tail feathers and orange bellies.

  31. Eastern Meadowlark! I captured some wonderful images of them in my own photo shoot shortly after the snows in northern Virginia on a cove in the Potomac River.

  32. Sparrows. Harris’s sparrow, field sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, white throat sparrow.

  33. Although I see them every year, and therefore they aren’t the “hardest” species to find, I enjoy Snow Buntings the most of the winter species in northern New Jersey. Snow Buntings are annual, they’re lovely to watch on the ground or in flight, and their life story is an inspiring one. Watching a flock feeding on a beach or a grassy parking lot is always a winter joy for me.

  34. In Nashville, we get lots of cardinals at our feeder (and on the ground beneath) year round, along with chickadees, titmice (titmouses?), and purple finches. There are also juncos, English sparrows, nuthatches, and woodpeckers (mostly downy and red-bellied), and an occasional rufus-sided towhee or two. Sometimes we’re descended upon by cowbirds or even grackles, and it’s not unusual to be visited by a bluejay as well. But none of the birds in this list have been spotted here.

  35. Rosy-finches! Sandia Mountains, just east of Albuquerque, NM was where I saw them last week. Banders capture them on Sundays at the deck of the Crest House where there are feeders. It’s at 10, 700 ft. and usually windy, but you can view them from inside easily (and warmly).

  36. This is not a good selection for the Middle Atlantic States, especially in SE Pa in the least not at my feeders

  37. I’m not likely to see many that you’ve listed where I live in central NC. I have seen huge flocks of snow geese in eastern NC – Pocosin National Wildlife Refuge. That was a wonderful experience. Closer to my home I enjoy the dark-eyed juncos and the white-throated sparrows that frequent my yard.

  38. I Live on the Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River. Last year I had the luck to see and get a picture of the evening grosbeck. They are a gorgeous bird. Have not seen any this winter

  39. My favorite winter birds are the sparrows. There are several varieties here and they all seem to get along well and eat and live together very peacefully and successfully.

  40. Justine, Great comments on these birds seldom seen in South Central Indiana. Wood peckers swarm our suet feeders! Buy the suet 60# at a time. Most folks “love our red heads”! would like to see a column about them. With identifiers. We have at least five varieties plus juveniles at our feeders.

  41. Good memories of seeing my first Evening Grosbeaks one Winter in Macon, GA 40+ years, in box elder trees, one of their favorite foods.

  42. Thank you for these photos and descriptions. Without this blog I would not know of these Bird species.

  43. Some of these birds will come to see you but most require that you go looking for them. Birding is what led me to conservation. If we help the birds we help ourselves.

  44. The Varied Thrush and the Western Blue Birds both appear at lower altitudes during the winter her in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

  45. As a nature photographer in Central New York State, I enjoy photographing birds around the house as well as in more distant natural settings. Backyard favorites are the Northern Cardinal, Chickadees and the Red-bellied Woodpecker. Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings draw me into the snow-covered fields in the rural countryside. Wild Turkeys are another wild land bird of interest. I share my work by blogging a photo journal at

  46. I live on the third floor of a building about 200 yards from Lake Michigan in Evanston. I have two feeders, one with sunflower seeds the other with thistle. We get a mix of house finches, chicadees, cardinals, gold finches, juncos, downeys, starlings, nuthatches, mourning doves and sparrows.

  47. Our favorites locally in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley include the Cedar Waxwings and the Snow Geese. Your article inspired us to take a winter road trip sometime soon. Thank you for the information and beautiful photos!

  48. The red belly woodpeckers, chasing starlings away from the sunflower feeders

  49. I now live in So. California so I watch/feed the hummies. As I’m from central Canada (Manitoba) I always loved to watch/feed the Chickadees and my favorite was the Canada Goose. Now I get to see the Canada Goose at the San Diego Zoo, many have decided to stay as the pickings are just right, and several are found around the local golf courses. As for the Chickadees, I have to read about them in my Birds & Blooms magazine.

  50. The hooded mergansers, wigeons and gadwalls that winter on Shark River Bay in N.J. It’s amazing to see how many birds call this place “south for the winter”.

  51. I am especially fond of the redpolls at my winter feeder. Last year I had a flock of thirty plus come every day. They are good sharers and got along very well with my goldfinches. This year I only have four or five so it must not be a harsh winter in Canada. Yesterday a very confused looking redwing blackbird spent the entire day in the feeder tree. It’s way too early for him to be this far north.

  52. The Cardinal! Both the brilliant red male.and the orange-beaked, grayish female are great fun to watch at the feeders where they often chase Sparrows or Juncos away. They feed on the ground as well as on the feeders and one can often see the male feeding the female. There may also be two males and one female that seem to stay together.

  53. It would be great to know where people are writing from. Our Eugene, Oregon feeder in winter attracts Black-capped Chickadees, Oregon Junkos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Flickers, Downey and an occasional Hairy Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Varied Thrush and of course chatty Crows. We hear owls at night but don’t see them. We’ve recently had a Cooper’s Hawk visiting. We also have Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds. What joy these birds bring.

  54. The Common Redpoll. I know when they have arrived as I can hear them talking in the trees.

  55. I am from Sudbury, Ontario. I wait anxiously for the arrival of the Commom Redpoll which arrive from the Tundar usually in January. I first hear them squeaking in the distance and within a few days they are at my feeders. I also get the Goldfinches and Pine Grossbeaks. I think the male Redpoll us so handsome .

  56. Like so many others, I love my Northern Cardinals. We have them year round here in western Oklahoma. They feed on wild berries year round but we feed with black sun flower seeds. Many different birds pass through our area and come for the summer. When it snows our feeder and yard are full of Cardinals. We see them daily.

  57. I loved looking at these photos! I paint birds, and love all winter birds!

    Thank you!

  58. The Cardinal! Stark Winter brings the Cardinal to brighten dreary day!
    When they sit on snowy branch, their stark color seems to glow!!!!