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10 Winter Birds in Michigan

It may surprise some that winter in Michigan is a great time to go bird-watching. Many birds in Michigan do not fly south in the winter but stay in the state year-round. Michigan also welcomes some new avian visitors from the north who move south during the colder months. These winter birds in Michigan bring life and color to a season that can otherwise be drab and dreary. 

Whether you’re an avid bird watcher or simply enjoy observing wildlife, the winter birds of Michigan offer a glimpse into the adaptability of nature. From the beloved Northern Cardinal to the unique Horned Lark, the following 10 winter birds in Michigan display a fascinating array of colors and behaviors that any bird-lover should know.

1. Red Crossbill 

Red crossbill male
Red-crossbill (male) | image by Charles Gates via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Loxia curvirostra

Red Crossbills are medium-sized finches with an unusual bill that allows them to pry open conifer cones to get the seeds, which other birds cannot normally access.

  • Appearance: Red crossbills have a unique crisscross bill, which they use to extract seeds tight cones. Plumage can vary, but males are often brick-red, and females are yellow-green.
  • Diet: Red Crossbills primarily eat conifer seeds, especially those from pine, fir, spruce and hemlock trees.
  • Habitat: Mature conifer forests of northern and western North America.
  • Migration: Red crossbills are known to migrate unpredictably based on food availability. They can, however, usually be seen throughout the state of Michigan during the winter. Some may remain in the northeast corner all year.
  • Interesting Fact: Red Crossbills feed conifer seeds to their young, which means as long as they have found a bountiful crop, they can breed anytime of the year.

2. Evening Grosbeak 

Perching evening grosbeak
Perching evening grosbeak

Scientific Name: Coccothraustes vespertinus

Evening Grosbeaks are large finches that are covered in brightly colored feathers. These birds migrate south in large flocks from their northern breeding area looking for food.

  • Appearance: Males had a yellow body, black and white wings, and a thick, pale bill. Females are mostly gray with white and black wings, yellow hues around the breast.
  • Diet: In summer they eat a lot of insects and larvae. They also eat a wide variety of seeds and small fruits. They prefer to eat at the tops of trees, but will come down to visit bird feeders, especially for sunflower seed.
  • Habitat: They can be found in coniferous and mixed forests across Canada and the northwest year-round, but many travel to the northern U.S. during the winter. 
  • Migration: These birds may migrate in search of food, leading to irregular appearances in different regions. This means that some years, large flocks will arrive in Michigan for the winter, while other years you won’t see a single Evening Grosbeak.
  • Interesting Fact: Thanks to their large bills, these birds can crush seeds that other birds, such as Pine Siskins and Redpolls, cannot open.

3. Horned Lark

Horned Lark
Horned lark | Image by ftmartens from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Eremophila alpestris

The Horned Lark is the only true lark species native to North America. They are interesting birds found almost everywhere in the continental United States.

  • Appearance: Horned larks have a unique look that consists of a black facial mask, small “horned” feather tufts on the head, and a buffy-colored body. It is these fake horns that give this bird its name.
  • Diet: Horned Larks feed primarily on seeds and insects, and they are mainly ground foragers. However, they will sometimes harvest seeds directly from plants.
  • Habitat: These larks prefer open areas that are bare, with dry ground and short vegetation. Prairies, beaches, tundras, deserts, and areas cleared by humans are their ideal habitat.
  • Migration: Horned Larks stay in Michigan during the winter, but some in the northern portion of the state may move a bit south when winter hits.
  • Interesting Fact: The female of the species will collect “pavings”, such as pebbles, corncobs, and even dung, that they place next to their nest and resemble an unusual walkway. While they don’t seem to use them in that manner, experts are not sure of the exact function that they provide. Some theorize that these pavings help to prevent the nesting materials from blowing away.

4. Snow Bunting 

snow buntings winter
Snow buntings in their non-breeding plumage | image by:

Scientific Name: Plectrophenax nivalis

Snow Buntings are ground-dwelling birds that perfectly match the snowy backdrop of the winter season. 

  • Appearance: Snow Buntings change up their look depending on the season. While breeding, males are all white with black wings, while females are white with brown mottled wings and some salt and pepper on the head. In the non-breeding season when we see them in the U.S., they’ve changed into a mix of white, black and brown with rusty patches on their face and shoulders. 
  • Diet: Snow Buntings primarily feed on seeds, especially grasses and flowering plants, but will also consume insects.
  • Habitat:  In summer they spend their time on the tundra and nest in rocky areas among sedge. During the winter, they can be seen along roadsides and shorelines, and in open fields and croplands.
  • Migration: These birds breed in the arctic tundra during the summer months, then move to south to Canada and the northern U.S. during the winter, including Michigan.
  • Interesting Fact: Male Snow Buntings change their plumage depending on whether they are breeding or non-breeding. However, these new feathers are not caused by a molt. Instead, the brownish feathers change to pure white because the males will rub their heads and bellies on the snow. This wears down the tips of the brown feathers, revealing the snowy white coloring below. 

5. Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin
Pine Siskin | image by Shenandoah National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Spinus pinus

Pine Siskins can sometimes be seen in the northernmost tip of Michigan year-round. For the rest of the state, however, you’ll have to wait until winter to see these birds. 

  • Appearance: Pine Siskins are small finches with streaked brown plumage and subtle yellow wing markings. Their beak is sharply pointed.
  • Diet: Pine Siskins primarily feed on seeds, especially those from conifers and other trees. But they also eat buds and insects. When visiting bird feeders they prefer smaller seeds without a thick shell like nyjer or black oil sunflower.
  • Habitat: These birds are often found in coniferous and mixed forests, but forage in many habitats including meadows, grassland, fields and backyards.
  • Migration: Pine Siskins are nomadic creatures, and can migrate irregularly in search of food. Some years Michigan may see lots of siskins, and others they may be mostly absent.
  • Interesting Fact: These finches can temporarily store seeds, as much as 10% of their body mass, in a part of their esophagus that is known as the crop. 

6. Black-Capped Chickadee 

Black-capped chickadee
Black-capped chickadee | Image by Jack Bulmer from Pixabay

Scientific Name: Poecile atricapillus

Black-Capped Chickadees are cute birds with round heads and little bodies. They are one of the most common birds you will see at your feeders. 

  • Appearance: These birds have a black cap and bib, grayish wings, and a white face. Their underside is lightly buffed, giving them a blush-like appearance.
  • Diet: Black-Capped Chickadees enjoy a varied diet of seeds, insects, and berries. They are one of the easiest birds to attract to feeders, especially if you offer them sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts, or mealworms.
  • Habitat: Found in deciduous and mixed forests, these birds are also often spotted in urban areas, willow thickets, open woods, and parks.
  • Migration: Black-Capped Chickadees stay in Michigan year-round.
  • Interesting Fact: Black-Capped Chickadees have a distinctive “chick-a-dee-dee” call. The more “dee” notes you hear, the more likely that a predator is nearby.

7. Northern Cardinal 

male and female cardinal snow
Male and female Northern Cardinal looking for seeds int he snow | image by:

Scientific Name: Cardinalis cardinalis

When you think of winter birds in Michigan, the Northern Cardinal is probably one of the first that comes to your mind. This attractive bird is a sight to see, and is often a common staple in Holiday decor. 

  • Appearance: The Northern Cardinal is a large bird, with the males having striking red plumage. While the female is built about the same as the males, with the same long tail and crest, their plumage is more brown.
  • Diet: Cardinals primarily feed on seeds, fruits, and insects.
  • Habitat: Cardinals are very adaptable birds, and thrive in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, gardens, and urban areas.
  • Migration: While these birds are generally non-migratory, they are not as common in the state’s Upper Peninsula. They are, however, regularly seen in both the Southern Lower and Northern Lower Peninsula throughout the year.
  • Interesting Fact: The Northern Cardinal is the state bird of seven different states, and the female of the species is one of only a few female songbirds that sing.

8. Dark-Eyed Junco 

dark eyed junco
Dark-eyed Junco | image by NPS | N. Lewis via Flickr

Scientific Name: Junco hyemalis

Dark-eyed juncos are one of the first birds to arrive at feeders as the weather turns cold, and many people think of them as the harbingers of winter.

  • Appearance: Across the country there are an amazing variety of color-forms specific to geographic location. In Michigan, you are most likely to see the slate-colored variety. They have white bellies and dark backs that can be soft gray to almost completely black. 
  • Diet: These ground-feeding birds are primarily seed-eaters, but they will also consume various insects during their breeding season.
  • Habitat: Juncos are commonly found in open woodlands, gardens, and fields.
  • Migration: These birds migrate into Michigan from the north for the winter months. Most will leave in spring, however a small population may remain in the northern tip of the state all year.
  • Interesting Fact: Dark-Eyed Juncos are found across the North American continent, as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. The most recent estimate of this bird’s population is about 630 million individuals. 

9. Red-Breasted Nuthatch 

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Scientific Name: Sitta canadensis

Red-breasted nuthatches are often seen “hitching” up, down, and even sideways on the surface of tree trunks. 

  • Appearance: The Red-Breasted Nuthatch is a compact bird with a black eye stripe and a reddish-brown breast. The back of this bird is bluish-gray, and they sometimes appear as if they have no neck.
  • Diet: Nuthatches feed on insects, seeds, and nuts. During the winter, however, they consume more seeds than insects, since seeds are typically more abundant during this time of year.
  • Habitat: These agile climbers are often found in coniferous forests, but are also frequent visitors to bird feeders. 
  • Migration: Red-breasted nuthatches can be found throughout most of Michigan all year. However the population may increase during the winter when northern birds come further south.
  • Interesting Fact: These birds are known for their habit of hiding food in the crevices of tree bark.

10. American Goldfinch

american goldfinch
American Goldfinch

Scientific Name: Spinus tristis

The American Goldfinch is a cheery little finch with a high-pitched squeak that loves to visit backyard for thistle seed.

  • Appearance: American Goldfinches are small birds that feature a conical bill and short tail. Breeding males of the species have vibrant yellow and black plumage, while non-breeding males are more brown. Breeding females have a duller yellow color than their breeding male counterparts.
  • Diet: Seeds are their primary food source, and these birds are considered the “strictest vegetarians in the bird world”, according to some.
  • Habitat: Found in weedy fields, meadows, and gardens, goldfinches are frequent visitors to thistle feeders.
  • Migration: American Goldfinches are present year-round in Michigan, but some winter flocks may include migrants from northern regions.
  • Interesting Fact: American goldfinches are one of the latest nesting birds, often waiting until mid-summer to breed. They molt into much duller plumage for the winter, then molt again into bright yellow for the summer.

Michigan Winters Bird and adaptations

Michigan winters, known for their cold temperatures and heavy snowfall, typically begin as early as late October or early November and can last through April. These winters can be challenging for both residents and wildlife. With temperatures often dropping below freezing, snowstorms frequently blanket the landscape in white. 

Birds in Michigan have evolved various adaptations to survive and thrive in the state’s diverse habitats. One notable adaptation is their ability to withstand cold temperatures during the harsh winters. Many birds migrate south to warmer climates during the winter months, while others stay and tough it out.

These birds have developed features such as thicker plumage and layers of fat to insulate their bodies against the cold. Some species also change their diets, relying more on seeds and berries that are available in winter rather than insects. Additionally, many birds in Michigan have adapted their behaviors, such as forming flocks for warmth and protection and seeking out sheltered areas like dense foliage or birdhouses.

How Winter Birds Survive in Michigan

In Michigan, winter poses challenges for birds, but they’ve evolved smart strategies to survive the cold.

Fluffing Feathers

Birds have several layers of downy feathers they can fluff up to trap warm air against their body. Some birds may grow extra down feathers for the winter, but many birds just carefully clean and maintain their down feathers all year. Many species molt (drop old feathers and grow new ones) at the end of the summer so by the time it gets cold, they have a fresh set of new feathers in tip top shape for the winter.

Fat Storage

To sustain themselves during lean winter months, some birds store extra fat reserves. These reserves serve as energy stores when food sources become scarce, helping them maintain their body temperature and survive through colder periods.


Migration is a widespread tactic among birds facing harsh Michigan winters. Many species fly south to warmer climates where food is more abundant and temperatures are milder. This annual journey allows them to escape the freezing conditions and ensures their survival until spring.

Finding Shelter

Birds seek out sheltered locations to shield themselves from harsh winds and extreme cold. They utilize dense foliage, tree cavities, and man-made structures like birdhouses as safe havens where they can roost and rest without being exposed to the elements.

Dietary Adjustments

With the scarcity of insects in winter, birds adapt their diets to include seeds, berries, and other readily available resources. This shift in diet allows them to sustain themselves when their usual food sources are limited, ensuring they have enough energy to endure the colder months.

Why do some birds in Michigan not migrate?

Some birds in Michigan choose not to migrate for various reasons. One primary factor is the availability of food. Michigan’s diverse habitats provide year-round access to food sources like seeds, berries, and insects, which can sustain resident birds throughout the winter.

Territorial considerations and the desire to maintain established nesting sites also play a role in the decision of some birds to stay in Michigan throughout the year. For those that stay, they don’t have to search and fight for the rights to claim territory like the other birds that return in the spring.


  • “Winter Birding in Michigan”, Erin Ford, February 05, 2021, Audubon Great Lakes,
  • “Winter Birding Opportunities”, Michigan Department of Natural Resources,

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