Freezing temperatures and a snow dusting have dashed hopes that summer might stick around Central Oregon. Many birds, including the yellow warbler and Lewis’s woodpecker, departed last month for warmer climes. The birds that winter here are a minority — more than half of Central Oregon’s birds depart for the winter, leaving about 175 species that are sufficiently hearty for our region’s frigidity, snow and relatively scant food.
While the area’s avian residents still make calls — such as a cluck or a chick — to communicate their location or that they found food, bird song will be less common in Central Oregon’s skies until spring, when birds advertise their health and vigor to potential mates.
Chuck Gates, an East Cascades Audubon Society founding member, provides the following profiles of five birds whose wintertime presence in Central Oregon makes gray days pop with color and cheer.
Arrival: Though the American robin is found locally year-round, winter sometimes brings more of the birds to Central Oregon. Some robins are migratory, but many come down from their nesting sites in higher elevations.
Appearance/characteristics: The male and female are very similar, with the female showing duller plumage throughout the body. The American robin has an elegant appearance in that the draping gray-brown of its wings and back suggest an overcoat; its burgundy and cinnamon chest, a suit vest.
Sighting spots: Areas thick with juniper or snow melt.
Voice descriptions: Robins sometimes sing on sunny winter mornings. Their “loud and liquid” song is “a variable cheerily cheer-up cheerio,” according to Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer.
Diet/predators: Robins feed on fruit among other things. Large flocks of robins may reflect heavy juniper berry years. When winter snow melts, the resulting water pools make earthworms surface to avoid drowning. An American robin often feeds on these earthworms in the mornings. In the afternoons, the bird forages for fruit. Birds of prey, including the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and merlin (the last one is detailed below) prey on the American robin and other small birds on this list.
Arrival: Early October
Appearance/characteristics: The dark-eyed junco is often called a snow bird because its arrival at bird feeders often coincides with the first snowfall in the mountains. Though a little gray bird, the dark-eyed junco has bold white outer tail feathers that flash when it flies, making it easy to identify even with the naked eye. The dark-eyed junco comes in many forms, but local subspecies Oregon junco is the most common. One of North America’s most common birds, the dark-eyed junco’s estimated population hovers around 300 million.
Sighting spots: This bird pours out of the Cascade Range to lower elevations like Bend and Redmond seeking bird and weed seed. The lower elevations accumulate less snow, so the dark-eyed junco can reach the seeds that lie on open ground.
Voice descriptions: The dark-eyed junco doesn’t typically sing in winter, but it makes a frequent clicking call.
Diet/predators: Seed. The best way to attract the dark-eyed junco to your yard is to put out yellow seed on the ground (they do not like to feed out of a feeder). This yellow seed can be millet, cracked corn, wheat or any mix of the above. It will eat black sunflower seeds, but it prefers the yellow seed without a husk. Its predators include the merlin and hawks.
Arrival: Early October
Appearance/characteristics: The merlin is a small falcon that winters in urban areas. It is often confused with the American kestrel, another local falcon, although the merlin is usually less colorful, with gray-blue dominating its coloring. A merlin used to be called a pigeon hawk because of its resemblance to a pigeon in flight. Many North American falconers use merlins — a go-to bird in falconry — to hunt doves and other birds.
Sighting spots: Wherever there are gatherings of small birds. In Bend, that typically means around bird feeders during the winter.
Voice descriptions: The merlin rarely calls in the winter; it doesn’t want to advertise its presence to possible prey.
Diet/predators: Like all falcons, the merlin feeds mostly on other birds, particularly the dark-eyed junco and the white-crowned sparrow. It has been known to prey on birds even larger than itself. The merlin does not have predators.
Arrival: The horned lark is present year-round, yet it’s more visible during winter.
Appearance/characteristics: The “horns” are feathers that adorn its head, providing a signal for others of the same species. The horned lark is the only true lark in the Americas. It is widespread throughout the northern hemisphere with many subspecies.
Sighting spots: Not a species found near human habitation, the horned lark prefers the wind-swept open desert where it specializes in finding seeds. It is sometimes found in cow pastures where it picks out seeds from hay. In winter, the horned lark forms large feeding flocks and become much easier to find. These flocks may contain other species, such as the lapland longspur, which are rare to Central Oregon. This makes the horned lark very attractive to bird watchers.
Voice descriptions: The horned lark makes high-pitched, twittering sounds as it feeds in winter.
Diet/predators: Seed. The peregrine falcon, prairie falcon and American kestrel prey on the horned lark.
Arrival: This bird is an elevational migrant from the Cascade Range.
Appearance/characteristics: About the size and shape of a bluebird, the Townsend’s solitaire, which is gray with dull gold streaks under its wings, can be recognized by its erratic flight pattern. It flies as if drunk, rarely able to stay a straight course. Some people have taken this to mean it is drunk from fermented juniper berries, but that is generally not the case. In 1835, naturalist and ornithologist John Kirk Townsend captured the first of this species along the lower Willamette River. Leading ornithologist John James Audubon later named the bird after Townsend. The Townsend’s solitaire is a member of the same family as local robins and bluebirds. The solitaire in its name comes from its preference for solitary perches atop trees. It does not form flocks like its close relatives.
Sighting spots: During winter, this bird is found in rural juniper forests.
Voice descriptions: Townsend’s solitaires sing frequently, even in winter. Their song is a clear, disjointed series of whistled notes.
Diet/predators: Juniper berries. In town, Townsend’s solitaire are eaten by merlins and Cooper’s hawks. In the country, it is susceptible to a variety of falcons.
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