The New Birds of Winter

By Marc Devokaitis
February 5, 2015
A Carolina Wren on a snowy day. Photo by Mike P via Birdshare.

For a variety of reasons—from changing habitats and a shifting climate to more people providing food at backyard feeders—some birds aren’t flying as far south for the winter these days. Some species that once flew to the tropics are now only going as far as temperate areas in the U.S. Some that used to overwinter in the American South are staying farther north.

Citizen-science projects, like the Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count, provide thousands of data points that show how the winter ranges of some birds have changed significantly.

Project FeederWatch reporting locations for Yellow-rumped Warbler show how their range has increased from 1989 to 2014.

Carolina Wren
The state bird of South Carolina has recently been spending the winter in areas as far north as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Montreal. Project FeederWatch tells the story of how this bird is expanding in its northern range. Last winter, Carolina Wrens were reported at 73 percent of bird feeders in Massachusetts, compared with 58 percent in 2003–04. It’s the same story in Michigan, where 26 percent of FeederWatchers reported Carolina Wrens last winter; 10 years ago that number was just 8 percent.

Bushtits are lively birds and flocks are becoming much more common in the West. Photo by Morgan Terrinori via Birdshare.

Project FeederWatch data show a steady increase in Bushtits reported at western bird feeders over the past couple decades, from around 10 percent of feeders in 1989 to about 30 percent in 2014. Feederwatch biologists aren’t exactly sure why this is happening, but it’s a mystery they hope to solve as they continue to analyze data this winter.

Project FeederWatch trend lines from the Northwest (blue) and Southwest (pink) show that the percentage of bird feeders in the West visited by Bushtits has about tripled.
A Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter plumage. Photo by Tony Adcock via Birdshare.

Yellow-rumped Warblers
Yellow-rumps are unique warblers in two respects. First, they’re not strictly a Neotropical migrant, with many staying in the U.S. for the winter. And second, they show up at bird feeders, often picking at a suet station. According to Project FeederWatch, more Yellow-rumped Warblers are overwintering in southeastern states. In a triangle from the Carolinas to Florida to Texas, reports of yellow-rumps (based on percentage of participants reporting the species) have more than doubled, from 22 percent in 1989 to 47 percent in 2013. Even in the Pacific Northwest, where wintertime Yellow-rumped Warbler sightings were exceedingly rare in 1989, they were found at nearly 13 percent of feeders in 2013.

yellow-rumped warbler maps from Project Feederwatch data.Project FeederWatch reporting locations for Yellow-rumped Warbler show how their range has increased from 1989 to 2014.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows feed almost exclusively on flying insects that are usually absent in the cold months, but somehow these birds are finding food and expanding their winter range . Photo by Ryan Schain via Birdshare.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow is a breeding bird of the United States that typically flies way south for the winter to Mexico and Central America. Since swallows feed almost exclusively on flying insects, they need to be in areas where they can find flies and bees. But in recent years they have overwintered in some surprisingly northern places. The Great Backyard Bird Count (which is held every year in February) has found these swallows in New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia. Scientists think that more sewage plants in urban areas, perhaps in combination with overall warmer winters, are providing a steady source of insects that allow Northern Rough-winged Swallows to make a living even in wintry regions. Reports of other swallow species, and Purple Martins, have also steadily increased during winter months in the North.

ebird map for northern rough-winged swallowSightings reported to eBird for Northern Rough-winged Swallow in the months of November-March.

For more on birds visiting your backyards and feeders:


  • Jan Drummey

    Have 3 birds at our feeder in Hampton NH. today that look like PLOVERS…can’t find an exact picture in my book but they have a definite RiNG around the front /light belly /short tail Can’t tell if the legs are orange because of the 3″snowfall ..have a mask , and are ground feeders….any ideas ??????

  • Kim Stone

    For the first time I have carolina wrens at my home feeder in Londonderry NH. What a beautiful Bird!

  • Margaret Thorson

    For the last 4 or 5 years here in the San Juan Islands of WA state we have golden crowned sparrows here all winter. They used to just come through fall and spring.

  • victoria

    Could it possibly be a Horned Lark? Your description kind of fits, except that they rarely if ever visit feeders, but we’re not sure what else it could be! here’s a link to their species account on All About Birds: Let us know, or see if you can get a picture and send it to for an ID from our public information specialist.

  • Beth

    We definitely have Carolina Wrens at our feeder here in snowy central Massachusetts!

  • Aubrey Ferguson

    A pair of Carolina wrens are staying near our feeders this winter in Oakville just west of Toronto Ontario.
    A few blocks from here, a Painted Bunting has decided to remain although we’re not sure if it’s an escapee from captivity.

  • Mary

    I have BLUEBIRDS, first time ever since I have been feeding birds!! How can I keep them coming this Spring & Summer??

  • Grace

    Here in Georgia-south of Atl we have Carolina Wrens all year round. Such a fun little bird. But, they don’t visit feeders here??? I’ve read their diets are mostly insects and rarely seeds. So I’m wondering why they visit feeders elsewhere but not where we are? They are everywhere on our wooded property. Maybe there is abundant insects so they have no need to visit feeders?

  • Mark

    Watched a pair of Wrens feeding on suet in Putnam, CT on Sunday 2/8/15.

  • Charles

    Carolina Wren at my feeder today as well as a flock of Eastern bluebirds. Northern Flicker nesting in a hollow at the base of a large oak tree 20 feet from the feeder.30 feet of snow here in Foxboro Mass. Flicker keeps digging itself out.

  • victoria

    Thanks for writing. Carolina Wrens tend to visit suet feeders more than most other types of feeders, so you may want to try to put up a suet feeder and see if that attracts them. It also sounds as though on your property, even during the winter, the wrens have a wide variety of natural food sources, so they may not need to visit feeders as often.

  • victoria

    Hi there and thanks for writing. Offering mealworms or waxworms is probably your best bet for feeding—but if you want them to spend the spring and summer with you, consider a bluebird nest box: Hope this helps!

  • victoria

    Though it is illegal to keep Painted Buntings as pets, it may well happen. I see on the eBird range map for the winter that Painted Bunting have been seen in the Toronto area, though that may be the one that you are seeing too! However, the range map also indicates that these birds do spend winter months much further north than you might think.

  • lee allen

    I live on the Connecticut / New York border about 45 miles north of New York City. I hear the Carolina Wren all winter, but for some reason he never visits my feeder. I get chickadees, titmice, gold and house finches, white throated sparrows, junkos, nuthatches, blue jays, downy, hairy and red bellied woodpeckers, cardinals and maybe a few others when I am not looking.

  • Hello Victoria,
    We have had 4 Bluebird males and 4 females at our feeders since Feb. 9, 2015.
    Have never seen any my whole life.
    We are in Wareham, MA in Buzzards Bay a block from the ocean.
    Nan Woodworth

  • Maggie

    This morning I saw a few gulls with black hoods/heads on the beach at St. Simons Island, Georgia. Isn’t it a little early for Bonaparte’s or Laughing Gulls to be in breeding plumage? There were fewer than ten in a flock of about 200, but they appeared to be about the same size as everyone else. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Mary Jane

    Carolina Wrens have been erratic visitors in the past, but this year, a pair has been coming to my feeders every day in Hamden, Connecticut. They are such beautiful and cheerful little birds!

  • James

    Just this past Sunday I saw a Horned Lark ground feeding below the feeders at the Coastal Audubon Center in Milford, here in Connecticut – so don’t rule out a Lark!

  • Kim

    This is very exciting information to see these species adapting to changes in the climate. To address what I know will come next from the nay sayers – are there species showing retractions from their more northerly distributions?

  • R. Kent-Drury

    Thought sure I saw two orchard orioles; maybe they were robins, but darker orange. I’m in Northern Ky; they aren’t supposed to be here for a couple of months.

  • Dave Lucey

    We have had a pair of Carolina Wrens, 3 or 4 Eastern Bluebirds and Hairy/Downey/Red-Belly Woodpeckers feeding on a suet block in Nashua, NH for approx. a month.

  • Pat

    Have had pairs of Carolina’s around for several winters. They even let me know with their happy chirping that they are patiently/impatiently awaiting their breakfast and dinner of mealworms. Always seem to be quite busy searching for their own insects also. I live just a little east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  • Jane Stevens

    I have had a Carolina Wren at my suet feeder. I also have what I think may be a juvenile Northern Flicker but am not sure. It is the size of a blue jay with a long straight beak. The body looks like the flicker but there are no red or black markings, just the speckled breast. I have a picture but have no idea where I could post it other than on Facebook (which I have done with not much identification help). Any ideas would be great as the bird count is in 3 days!!

  • Jane Stevens

    I forgot to mention that I am on snowy Cape Cod and have been replenishing my ground feeders almost hourly!! The birds almost forget to fly away when I go out!! They are back before I get into the house..hungry hungry!

  • Esther

    I have a pair of Carolina wrens who sing beautifully, visit the suet feeder, and sleep in the folds of the patio umbrella! Very sweet, very curious birds that often slips into the house to look around here near Houston, TX.

  • Elizabeth

    I live in a suburb east of Cleveland, Ohio and once or twice this winter have seen either a carolina wren or winter wren in the snow on our deck. We have house wrens that some years nest in houses we provide in spring and then they leave around August. I was surprised then to see wrens in winter. How do I know if this bird is a carolina or winter wren?

  • Birgitte Moyer

    For the first time time this year I have seen a mountain chickadee and a varied thrush in our yard in Portola Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. I saw one live varied thrush and found one dead one. Interestingly two other people in this neighborhood have reported finding dead varied thrushes (one posted a photo, and it was definitely a varied thrush). I hope there is no disease outbreak[?]

    Birgitte Moyer-Vinding

  • George A. Wojtowycz

    It’s too bad I can’t post pictures on my comment, because I’m soooo thrill to have these little visitors to my oh, so very new feeder! One comes by every four days or so.

  • Vicki

    I have one Carolina wren here in southwestern NY. What fun! Was easy to identify with the white stripe over the eye and beautiful brown body!

  • Sally

    We have Carolina Wrens in our San Antonio TX backyard all year long. They enjoy the mealworms from our feeder.

  • gayle

    The carolina wren is a beautiful bird but also human friendly…she will come into your house and look around and search your screens for bugs and spiders…not so “flighty”, but will come close…

  • gayle

    My wren is enjoying a suet cake…

  • Jo Muncy

    I have a family of Carolina Wrens that live here at my home for 5 years. I built houses that they have raised their young in and feeders. One home is by my back door that seems to be his favorite one. Love to watch these happy little birds. It started with one Wren and I watched him get a mate, to having several broods.

  • victoria

    Carolina Wrens have more rufous colored feathers and a very distinct white eyebrow stripe. Winter Wrens are a more uniform brown. Follow the links to our species guides on All About Birds for ID tips on these wrens. Hope this helps!

  • victoria

    Is it possible that you are seeing a thrush? Perhaps a Hermit Thrush? Feel free to send picture of your mystery bird to our public information specialists at the Cornell Lab:

  • victoria

    Thanks for asking. It’s actually not that early to see breeding plumage. Most accounts list the indicate that Laughing Gull may start showing breeding plumage between February and April, and Bonaparte’s Gull from January to May.

  • victoria

    Thanks for your comment. As far as I know there isn’t any information on retractions of more northern species, though, sadly, there are plenty of typically-northern species whose populations have declined precipitously like Evening Grosbeak, Short-eared Owl, and Snow Bunting. In some cases, one could argue that the southerly irruptions of certain species have been greater and/or further south in recent years (like Snowy Owls visiting Florida and Bermuda), but this doesn’t necessarily count as range expansion as these southerly movements are seasonal and based on food availability.

  • Athens Georgia Carolina wrens are curious. one explored my bedroom, and one flew through the house in one side and out the other!

  • Jo Muncy

    I use a clay pot bottom drilled some holes in the edges and hang it out under the roof edge in front of my picture window, with a few meal worms. You want to keep it somewhat dry so the meal worms don’t get wet. I have notice from watching my feeders that most of the birds come to eat 3 times a day, usually 6-7 am, 1-2 pm and then about 4-5 pm.

  • Grace

    I am going to try moving a feeder away from the other bird feeders and see if the C. Wren will come to it. They come up on our porches and get insects and build nests in our barn every year. The more I read other comments I just think the ones we have here must have enough food in the wild and don’t bother with our feeders. But, this bird remains one of my all time favorites with its quirky personality! I’m so happy to hear it is flourishing and able to withstand the colder temps. I love hearing that others love this little guy too!

  • Karyn d’Avignon

    We have had Carolina wrens nesting and overwintering in our garage for 3 yrs in Avon, CT. At first they used an old phoebe nest on a shelf in the garage. When that fell apart they built their own nest in a tool box on a shelf. Downside of all of this–we must open the garage door by 6:45 am or their calls become quite strident! First stop in the winter is the mealworms followed by the suet. They really liven up the day!

  • Lee Couturier

    We live in Skowhegan, Maine and have had a Carolina Wren visiting our feeders all winter. At first we thought it was a weird kind of nut hatch, but then I saw the article about new birds of winter and saw the picture of the Carolina Wren. We Have never seen one at our feeders before this winter, what a winter to show up.

  • Robert Arthur Dey

    Love your periodical! It is the only one of the several which I receive that truly excites me. I saw my first Carolina Wren at our feeders this winter here in the NW corner of NJ. Beautiful.

  • Kristy Koempel

    I live in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. Carolina wrens visit my porch in the winter. One summer they built their nest in a cardboard box on the back patio. I saw the fledglings leave the nest. The wrens are one of my favorite winter birds.

  • Sedgy

    Have a lone Carolina Wren this year in Janesville, WI…very cold and moderate snow. Lots of feeders/suet sources for it, water at the neighbors.

  • Johnny Shi

    Wow! What a cool project. I never knew that more people providing backyard feeders could have such a strong effect on birds. It makes me wonder how much the data would change if more people reported which birds visited their feeders. Does this have a negative effect on the birds?

  • Vu

    Yes. i think so :)

  • van chuyen hang le

    I also think like you, that’s great, hope to someday see the birds that

  • Martha

    Where are our beloved Carolina Wrens? We have lived along the coast of South Carolina for over 30 years and have had Carolina Wrens at every home we’ve ownen. We bought several acres about 18 miles inland of N.Myrtle Beach, SC over a year ago and have yet to see a Carolina Wren on our property. We have all types of feeders and various feeding stations. How do we attract our unique State bird?

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]