Special to Montclair Local

The winter months at first appear to be not as colorful as other seasons. The only flowers in my yard that bloom in January and February are the hellebores in their muted shades of white and green. The purplish ones will bloom later. 

While the flowers may be limited, February is not entirely without color, and this is the best time to see the bright berries dotting the bushes and vines. 

We also have the brilliant colors of the birds that visit the yard in winter. They are impressive against the dull grass backdrop as they peck at seeds from the flower stalks that bloomed earlier in the year. 

This is the season when the light comes unfiltered through leafless trees, making cardinals appear redder and blue jays bluer, and we can only wait for the additional contrast of these vibrantly colored birds against the inevitable snowbanks.

The earliest morning appearances in my yard are typically by red-bellied woodpeckers, sporting striking red caps and barred black-and-white backs. We have at least one pair. 

Oddly, the red belly of the red-bellied may be the one characteristic of the bird that is rarely seen. When the bird is feeding on the underside of a limb or hanging from a suet feeder, the pinkish belly is potentially visible. The male’s red nape patch continues over the top of its head to the bill. 

Backyard bird-watchers often mistakenly call the bird a red-headed woodpecker. While the name may be apt, another bird owns that distinction. 

The red-headed woodpecker is distinguished by its completely red head and a black-and-white back that is not barred. The red-headed woodpecker can be seen in our local yards, but it is far less common than the red-bellied.

The red-bellieds will come to suet feeders and will also eat seeds on the ground. You may also see them eating berries and possibly catching insects in flight in warmer weather. While a few red-bellied woodpeckers may migrate south, we can expect to see them all winter long.

Another woodpecker that visits my yard regularly in the summer, but much less frequently in winter, is the northern flicker. 

The color flickers bring to the yard is just as dramatic as the red-bellied’s. The deep black of the upper chest and the silvery cap with a touch of red are offset by a white chest with dense black spotting. In our area, these birds show yellow-shafted wing and tail feathers when they fly, while in the western part of the country they have red shafts. 

I don’t expect to see them on the suet feeder, though they will periodically examine it; they prefer to feed on the ground. They eat seeds and fruits in the winter, but when available, they much prefer insects. 

Typically, flickers will be found on the ground catching ants. If you are only looking up, you can easily miss a bird on the ground, but if the flicker on your lawn sees you first and flies, it can still be easily identified by a conspicuous white patch on the rump. 

After the large woodpeckers finish, the smaller downy woodpeckers fly to the suet. They are probably the most frequent of our feeder visitors. 

We have at least three downy woodpeckers taking turns on the suet cage. One will eat while the others wait on a post. When red-bellieds fly to the suet, other birds scatter. Downies are smaller, and they tend not to scare the other birds as they wait patiently for their turn at the suet.

They wait on nearby branches and then execute short, deliberate glides to the wooden perch by the suet feeder. You might expect them to jump directly onto the suet, but they don’t. They land on the post across from the feeder, a foot or two below the suet. 

Then they begin their gradual climb up the post, pausing every few inches to swivel the head and scan the sky. It is probably a good precaution; however, it adds minutes to the time it takes to actually get a meal. 

Woodpeckers pecking at suet are rather messy, dropping a considerable amount on the ground, where the dropped pieces are very much appreciated by the sparrows and juncos congregating below. If you watch closely, as soon as the woodpeckers arrive, small birds race over for the scraps. It seems chaotic, but they all seem to be getting fed.

Millions of households in the United States feed birds during the colder months. This has caused some concern among scientists about the effect this will have on migratory behavior as birds abandon their traditional habits to rely on backyard feeders. 

The Journal of Avian Biology reported on a black-capped chickadee study, “It’s clear that the chickadees in our study did not increase their visitation rates, nor did they increase their reliance on supplemental feed, during a period when they might have benefited from it the most.” 

This should help assuage any concerns as we continue to enjoy the birds at our seed and suet feeders.


In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford “Sandy” Sorkin and David Wasmuth alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. Sorkin, a Montclair resident since 1978, is currently treasurer of the Montclair Bird Club. An experienced bird-watcher and accomplished nature photographer, he is the co-author with Rick Wright of “Watching Birds in Montclair,” “Feeding Birds in Northern New Jersey” and “Watching Birds in the New Jersey Meadowlands.”

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