Backyard Bird Watch

With warmer weather comes increasing numbers of backyard birds.

Rebecca Thompson our Academic Programs Manager is one of our resident birding experts. She recommends the following tips when looking for birds in your yard:


Birding 101: Tips for beginners

  1. Listen first then follow the sounds.
  2. Start your search in spring before the trees are in full bloom.
  3. Look at all levels from the ground to eye-level shrubs and high into trees



Look for these popular birds:

Northern Cardinal (Male)

Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis

Size: 8-9 inches, Wingspan: 9-12 inches
Description: Males: bright red body and head, with an orange red bill and black face around the bill. Females: Pale brown gray body with reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest and black face and red-orange bill.
Range: Eastern United States down south through Mexico and Central America.
Voice: Repetition of short whistled phrases with some notes run together; sounds like birdy, birdy, birdy.

Northern cardinals are probably the most easily recognized birds in Northeastern United States. They do no migrate or change color so they can be seen all year round. They prefer wetland, forest, and shrub ecosystems, though they can live in former forests and urban areas. Unlike most songbirds both males and females sing. Males may sing throughout the year while females may be heard primarily during nesting season.

Northern cardinals hop, not walk, on the ground foraging for seeds and fruits. Their thick, cone-shaped beak is well adapted to cracking many different kinds of seeds including buckwheat, grasses, sedges, sumac, tulip-tree, and corn. Cardinals eat many kinds of feeder seed including safflower and black oil sunflower seed. They also supplement their diet and feed their nestlings invertebrates including beetles, crickets, katydids, leafhoppers, cicadas, flies, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, and moths. During foraging, young birds often allow adults to feed first and females tend to allow males to feed before them. Cardinals sometimes forage with other species, including dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, goldfinches and other sparrow species.

Northern cardinals are monogamous. However they often choose a different mate each breeding season. Once a pair is established male cardinals vehemently defend their territory from other males during. Both males and females can even be seen fighting their own reflection on windows, mirrors or metal object for hours defending their territory.

Nest building begins in April. Northern Cardinals build their nest less than eight feet off the ground in a fork of small branches in a sapling, shrub, or vine tangle. They generally use their nests only once. Females construct the nest of thin twigs, grasses, strips of bark, vines and rootlets in 3-9 days. Males may bring nesting material to the females.

Northern cardinals usually have two sets of young each year. Female northern cardinals lay three or four pale green, speckled brown eggs. Females do most of the incubating typically after the third egg is laid. Males bring food to the females throughout incubation. Eggs hatch in about 12 days. Once the young cardinals have hatched males tend to them while the females begin building a new nest. Immature cardinals look more like females than males. They leave the nest 9-11 days and become independent at 38-45 days.

Populations of northern cardinal are stable or slightly declining. Cardinals generally expanded their range northward in the 20th century due to the growth of towns and suburbs across eastern North America. However habitat loss at the edge of the cardinal’s range may have cause the disappearance of local northern cardinal populations.

Northern Cardinal (Male)

American Goldfinch
Carduelis tristis

Size: length 4-5 inches; wingspan 7-9 inches
Description: Black wings and white wing bars. Breeding males: bright yellow body. Non-breeding males: olive to tan body. Females: yellow green under parts, throat and breast.
Range: Summer range across North America from coast to coast; winter range includes southern Canada and stretches south to parts of Mexico.
Voice: A variable and intricate mix of warbles and trills, with a distinctive tone. Often calls while in flight po-ta-to-chip

American Goldfinches are found in every land habitat in every season in Ohio. They usually flock together in weedy fields, open flood plains, suburbs, parks, backyard feeders and overgrown areas. They can wander and will move between habitats to locate better food resources. American goldfinches are herbivores who eat almost exclusively seeds, although an occasional insect is consumed inadvertently while eating seeds from asteraceae family (sunflowers, thistle, asters, etc.). Grasses and trees such as alder, birch, and conifers are also a favorite of the American goldfinch. They also consume large numbers of weed seeds. At backyard feeders American goldfinch primarily prefers nyjer (thistle) seed. Flocks will move up to five miles per day between feeders (Middleton 1993).

Sometimes referred to wild canaries, American goldfinches are the only finch that completely molts its body feathers twice a year, once in early spring and again in late fall. In early spring, breeding season, male goldfinch become a vibrant yellow by late fall the yellow feathers turn a tan to olive color. The new fall feathers are much denser than their summer plumage. These soft feathers provide an additional layer of insulation to help keep them warm throughout the winter. Black wings and white wing bars are present throughout the entire year.

American goldfinches breed later than most North American birds. They wait to nest until late July or early August when milkweed, thistle, and other plants have produced fibrous seeds. Their nest is usually assembled in shrubs or saplings in an open setting 4-10 feet above the ground. Females constructs the open cup nest with grass and plant fibers; attaching the nest to the tree or shrub with spider webs. Nests are often woven so tightly that they can temporarily hold water.

Females complete the nests by lining them with plant down and hair. It takes females up to six days to build a nest approximately 3 inches across and 2-4.5 inches high.

Female goldfinches usually lay five pale-blue or greenish-blue eggs. They, unlike the male, incubate the eggs. Males feed females on the nest throughout incubation and takes on an ever increasing role in feeding the nestlings as they grow older. Eggs hatch in approximately 12 days. Brown-headed cowbird sometime lay their eggs in the nest of the American goldfinch. The female incubates the egg until it hatches. However few cowbird chicks live longer than three or four days. This is due to the low amounts of protein found in the vegetarian diet of the goldfinch. American goldfinch nestlings will fledge about 12 days after hatching. Fledglings are dependent on their parents for at least three weeks after leaving the nest.

American goldfinches are abundant and widespread. Populations appear to be stable. However bird populations, including those of the American goldfinch adjust in response to changes in the environment around them. Decreasing amounts of breeding habitats including food and nesting plants, resulting from changing agricultural practices and the expansion of urban areas, may contribute to future population declines.

Blue Jay
Cyanocitta cristata

Size:length 9-12 inches; wingspan 16 inches

Description: Bright blue crest and back; with bars on wings, white under parts, dark strips on blue tail, black bill; black necklace on face which starts above the eye
Range: Southern Canada and in the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains
Voice: Loud harsh “jay, jay, jay.” Calls can also include a sound similar to a squeaky door.


Blue jays are found in all kinds of forests. They are more abundant near forest edges than deep in the forest, and common in urban and suburban areas, especially where oaks grow or bird nut feeders are found. They are known for their intelligence and complex social systems including tight family bonds. Slightly larger than a robin, the blue jays’ distinct blue and white color and high crest makes them easily recognizable in a yard or forest.

Blue jays mainly feed on nuts such as acorns and are one of the few birds that store food for use at another time. They can carry up to five acorns in their mouth at once. Two to three acorns can be carried in their throat and upper esophagus called a “gular pouch.” One can be carried in their mouth and the other at the tip of their bill. It is estimated a single blue jay can store 3,000-5,000 acorns in one autumn. Beside nuts, blue jays will also glean small invertebrates from trees and shrubs during the warm months. It is very rare for a blue jay to take and eat eggs and nestlings. However in late summer, fall and winter blue jays may travel in large aggressive flocks to frighten other birds away from prime feeding areas. Blue jays frequently scare birds off by mimicking calls of a red-shoulder or red-tailed hawks. These calls deceive other species into believing a hawk, a predator, is present.

Blue jay migration is a mystery. For the most part many blue jays are present in the same area year round. However flocks of blue jays do migrate along the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts. Both young and old blue jays have been observed migrating. Some individual blue jays migrate south one year then stay north the next year, and then migrate south again the following year. There is no clear study on the variation in individuals which migrate.

One thing is clear blue jays are abundant in the breeding season. The season begins in mid-March and extends into July. They typically form monogamous pair bonds for life and are not very picky about nesting locations. A tree or large bush may be used for nesting. Both sexes build the nest and help rear the young. The nest is built at a height of 10- 40 feet high. The cup-shaped nest is composed of twigs, small roots, bark strips, moss, other plant material, cloth, paper and feathers, occasionally with mud added to the cup. The female sits on 4 -5 pale olive eggs over 16 – 18 days. Young fledge usually between 17 – 21 days after hatching. After the juveniles fledge, the family travels and forages together until early fall. Blue jays typically have only a singe brood in Ohio but will nest again if the clutch was lost due to predation.

Blue jays are frequent and abundant in their range. They have adapted well to living around humans. However the most frequent cause of death for blues jays is cat predation. Millions of birds are killed annually by cats. Keeping cats indoors or under control when outdoors ensures breeding success and survival of many bird species, especially rare or endangered species.