How to ID common feeder birds


Identifying common backyard birds is relatively simple by using a step-by-step procedure.

Let’s use a group of familiar species to demonstrate the process. Mixed flocks of gregarious, acrobatic, arboreal (tree dwelling) species frequent feeders during the fall and winter. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers make up the group of birds I call the “social climbers.”

If you offer sunflower seeds at feeders and live in at least a partially wooded area, you will see these species. The big question is, which is which?


The first characteristic to notice is relative size.

At about five inches long, chickadees are the smallest of the group. They are small, plump, gray birds with contrasting black caps and black throats. Flock size varies from four to a dozen individuals.

Their most common call note is a distinctive, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”

If you live in the mountains or north of an imaginary line from Philadelphia to Kansas, you most likely see black-capped chickadees. At lower elevations and south of that line, Carolina chickadees predominate.


Tufted titmice are also small gray birds, but are a bit larger. The most distinguishing characteristic is the prominent crest on the head. In fact, titmice are the only gray crested bird in this part of the country.

In flight you might notice a pale rusty wash on the sides under the wings. Their voice is reminiscent of a chickadee’s, but faster. Titmice flocks usually number four to six individuals.


White-breasted nuthatches are the most acrobatic of the social climbers. They move head first down tree trunks with ease and often spiral around branches as they forage for insect eggs and pupae.

They are about the size of titmice, wear a black cap, and have a pure white face. The bill is dagger-like.

Observant watchers will notice a rusty wash on the sides. I usually see nuthatches in pairs and notice their nasal “yank, yank” call note.

Some years, red-breasted nuthatches invade from the north. They are easy to recognize as nuthatches, but are smaller than white-breasts. The rusty breast is distinctive, and their voice sounds like a toy horn.


The final members of the social climbers are the woodpeckers, which usually join these flocks as singles or pairs.

Woodpeckers usually hitch their way up tree trunks using their tail as prop. They peel off bark or hammer through wood in search of insect food. In flight, they bounce through the air in an undulating motion.

The most common and widespread woodpecker is the downy. It is just a bit larger than a titmouse and is black and white. Adult males have a bright red spot on the back of their heads. Females lack this red spot.

A downy woodpecker’s bill is small, shorter than the length of its head. Its voice is a sharp, high-pitched “pick!,” and they often communicate by drumming on hollow trees.

Downy woodpeckers are easily confused with hairy woodpeckers, but the confusion is easy to avoid. Though downies and hairies are look-alikes, hairies are noticeably larger and their bill is heavier and longer then its head. See a downy and hairy side by side, and you’ll never again confuse the two; the difference in relative bill size is obvious.

Red-bellied woodpeckers also frequently visit feeders. This misleadingly named woodpecker has a pale rosy wash on its belly, but it is noticeably larger than downies and hairies. A red-belly’s back is marked by horizontal black and white bars, it has a stout chisel-like bill, and the top of the head is red.

On males, the entire crown and back of the neck is red; on females, only the nape of the neck is red. I describe its voice as a “chuckle.”

Finally, crow-sized pileated woodpeckers also sometimes visit feeders, but they can be recognized by size alone. When you see a pileated, you’ll probably think, “Woody Woodpecker.”

On the lookout

As you monitor feeders this fall and winter, watch for the acrobatic social climbers. Notice differences in relative size, shapes, colors, contrasting markings, behavior, and voice, and you’ll master the identification of a half dozen entertaining feeder birds before Christmas.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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