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14 Winter Birds in Minnesota

As winter begins to blanket the Minnesota landscape with glistening snow and chilly air, you may begin to see the presence of winter birds. These birds, which range from charming songbirds to majestic raptors, can withstand and even thrive in the frigid temperatures that Minnesota experiences during the winter. In fact, it is not uncommon for the state to experience below-freezing temps throughout the “ber” months. These winter birds in Minnesota, however, seem to have no problem braving the cold. Let’s look at just a small selection of the brave winter birds in Minnesota that stick it out during the cold.

1. Northern Cardinal

male and female cardinal snow
Male and female Northern Cardinal looking for seeds in the snow | image by:

Scientific Name: Cardinalis cardinalis

The Northern Cardinal may be the most well-known winter bird, and is often used in Holiday imagery, such as decorations and cards. 

  • Appearance: Northern Cardinals are striking birds with males having vibrant red plumage, a distinctive crest on their heads, and a black mask around their eyes. Females of the species are more of a warm brown with slight red hues, but share the same orange beak as males.
  • Diet: They primarily feed on seeds, fruits, and insects, and are regular visitors to backyard feeders,
  • Habitat: Cardinals are often found in woodlands, gardens, and urban areas that are filled with dense shrubbery during winter.
  • Migration: Northern Cardinals are non-migratory birds, which means they stay in Minnesota throughout the year.
  • Interesting Facts: Cardinals are one of only five crested songbirds found in Minnesota. The other four are the Tufted Titmouse, Bohemian Waxwing, Blue Jay, and Cedar Waxwing.

2. Evening Grosbeak

Evening grosbeaks on bird feeder
Evening grosbeaks on bird feeder | image by fishhawk via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Coccothraustes vespertinus

Minnesota is one of the few states where you have a pretty good chance to see the beautiful Evening Grosbeak, a large finch of northern evergreen forests. 

  • 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. In Minnesota there may be year-round residents in the northeastern part of the state, while the rest of the state is more likely to see them during the winter months.
  • Migration: Evening grosbeaks are known for their irregular migration patterns, often moving in response to food availability rather than seasonal changes. 
  • Interesting Facts: Evening Grosbeaks can really aid in the health of a forest by eating a lot of spruce budworm, who’s larvae can damage spruce and fir trees.

3. White-Breasted Nuthatch 

White-breasted nuthatch perching on wood
White-breasted nuthatch perching on wood | image by Shenandoah National Park via Flickr

Scientific Name: Sitta carolinensis

White-Breasted Nuthatches are agile birds that jam large acorns and nuts into the bark of trees, and then whack the nuts with their bill to “hatch” the seed from inside its protective coating. 

  • Appearance: White-Breasted Nuthatches have a black cap, white face, and a blue-gray back. They are a compact bird with no discernible neck, a pointed bill, and short tail. They are often seen climbing head first down tree trunks.
  • Diet: White-Breasted Nuthatches feed on insects, seeds, and nuts, and are known for storing food in crevices of tree bark.
  • Habitat: Nuthatches are commonly found in deciduous forests, as well as in urban and suburban areas. They are a common visitor to backyard feeders.
  • Migration: White-breasted Nuthatches are non-migratory and can be spotted in Minnesota throughout the year.
  • Interesting Facts: These birds are often observed “hitching” down trees in a distinctive pose. During the winter, nuthatches will wedge seeds into the bark of trees to store for later. 

4. Downy Woodpecker 

Downy woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker | image by NPS | N. Lewis via Flickr

Scientific Name: Picoides pubescens

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker found in North America. It measures anywhere from a little over 5 inches to 7 inches long, and has a weight of no more than 1 ounce.  These woodpeckers have high pitch calls that range from a descending rattle to a quiet pik.

  • Appearance: Downy Woodpeckers are small woodpeckers with black and white plumage and a short bill. The males have a red spot on the back of their heads.
  • Diet: They feed on various insects, seeds, and grains. It is not uncommon to see these woodpeckers in mixed flocks with other species, such as nuthatches and chickadees. They tend to visit back yard suet and seed feeder more frequently than other woodpecker species. 
  • Habitat: Downy Woodpeckers inhabit a variety of wooded areas, including parks, gardens, and suburban neighborhoods, as well as grasslands, meadows, and fields.
  • Migration: While some may migrate, many Downy Woodpeckers are year-round residents in Minnesota and may just be the most well-known of all the woodpeckers that call Minnesota their home.
  • Interesting Facts: Downy Woodpeckers look remarkably similar to the Hairy Woodpecker and the two are often confused. One of the best ways to tell them apart is that the Downy is smaller with a shorter beak.

5. Common Raven 

Image: Neal Herbert

Scientific Name: Corvus corax

Ravens are a sight to see, with their jet black plumage and large stature. You can attract these birds to your yard by leaving out an abundance of grain, seed, or pet food. 

  • Appearance: The Common Raven is a large, all-black bird with a wedge-shaped tail and a distinctive croaking call. They have thick, shaggy feathers on their throat, which can give them a scruffy appearance.
  • Diet: Ravens are opportunistic feeders, consuming a variety of items including carrion, berries, insects, and small animals.
  • Habitat: Common Ravens are adaptable birds found in a range of habitats, from forests to open country. They can even be seen in commercial and residential areas. 
  • Migration: Some Ravens may migrate short distances, but many are year-round residents in Minnesota.
  • Interesting Facts: Ravens are highly intelligent and are known for their problem-solving abilities. They can also mimic the calls of other bird species, and can even imitate human words, when raised in captivity that is.

6. Snowy Owl 

Scientific Name: Bubo scandiacus

The Snowy Owl is one of the most sought-after owls by bird lovers. Perhaps due to its unique all white plumage, or just how hard it is to find them. Minnesota has a distinct advantage here, being far enough north that it falls within the Snowy Owls winter range.

  • Appearance: Snowy Owls are large, white owls with distinctive yellow eyes. The wings and underparts of females are covered with dark spots, while males remain mostly white.
  • Diet: Mainly carnivorous, Snowy Owls feed on small mammals, such as mice and voles.
  • Habitat: After breeding at the arctic circle for the summer, these owls move south into Canada and the northern U.S. for the winter. During winter, look for them in open fields, marshes, and shorelines where they go in search of prey.
  • Migration: Snowy Owls migrate into Minnesota, where they will sometimes be seen hunting for food in city areas, such as railroad yards, airports, or along lakeshores and open fields. 
  • Interesting Facts: Snowy owls hunt during daylight, since they’ve had to adapt to the 24-hr daylight hours of their summer home around the arctic circle. 

7. Black-Capped Chickadee 

black capped chickadee on a tree branch

Scientific Name: Poecile atricapillus

The Black-Capped Chickadee is found throughout the state of Minnesota, even in urban and suburban locations. They are frequently seen at bird feeders, consuming seeds and suet. 

  • Appearance: Small and round, with a black cap and bib, the Black-Capped Chickadee has a gray back, gray wings, white cheeks, and light yellowish brown underparts. They have a distinctive ‘chickadee-dee-dee’ call, and the more ‘dee’ notes in this call indicate the threat level.  
  • Diet: Chickadees feed on insects, seeds, and berries.
  • Habitat: They are common in deciduous and mixed woodlands, as well as suburban areas with bird feeders.
  • Migration: Black-Capped Chickadees are non-migratory, and can be found in Minnesota throughout the year.
  • Interesting Facts: Chickadees are known for their bold behavior, often approaching humans closely. They can also lower their body temperature to conserve energy on cold nights.

8. Common Redpoll 

Common redpoll
Common Redpoll (male) | image by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

Scientific Name: Acanthis flammea

Common Redpolls are a common sight in Minnesota during the winter, but are typically long gone by the time spring rolls around. Even though their numbers are rather large, the Common Redpoll is listed as being in steep decline.

  • Appearance: A small finch with a red patch on its forehead, a distinct black chin, and a streaked brown body. Males have a pink wash down their chest. 
  • Diet: Redpolls primarily feed on birch and alder seeds, but also enjoy thistle, nyjer, and sunflower seeds from bird feeders.
  • Habitat: They inhabit boreal forests and are often found in open woodlands during the winter.
  • Migration: Common Redpolls are considered “irruptive” in the winter, meaning their migration patterns and population numbers fluctuate irregularly and unpredictably. These birds may move into new areas in large numbers during some years and then be scarce or absent in other years. The irregular movements are often driven by changes in food availability in their wintering areas.
  • Interesting Facts: During the winter, these birds will tunnel into the snow. This helps to keep them warm after the sun goes down. These tunnels can be over a foot long and about 4 inches deep.

9. Northern Hawk Owl 

northern hawk owl
Northern Hawk Owl | image by Lisa Hupp/USFWS via Flickr

Scientific Name: Surnia ulula

The Northern Hawk Owl can be a conundrum since it has the appearance of an owl, but behaves more like a hawk. Minnesota is one of the few U.S. States where you can spot this interesting owl.  

  • Appearance: The Northern Hawk Owl has a striking appearance, with its barred tail, yellow eyes, brown stripes on its belly, and a white face with a dark border.
  • Diet: Hawk Owls primarily hunt during the day, feeding on small mammals and birds.
  • Habitat: These owls are found in coniferous forests, often perched on treetops while hunting. The northeastern corner of Minnesota is within its year-round range, and some may wander further into the state during the winter. 
  • Migration: Hawk Owls are nomadic and may move southward during the winter, especially in search of prey.
  • Interesting Facts: Northern Hawk Owls have the ability to detect prey from up to half a mile away. And when you consider that they do this with sight alone, you will understand just how amazing these creatures are.

10. Bohemian Waxwing 

bohemian waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing | image by Silver Leapers via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Bombycilla garrulus

There are only 3 different species of Bohemian Waxwings; the Bohemian Waxwing in North America and Eurasia, the Japanese Waxwing of eastern Asia, and the Cedar Waxwing in North America. 

  • Appearance: Bohemian Waxwings are sleek birds with a crested head, distinctive black mask, and a yellow-tipped tail. Their plumage is an overall grayish brown color, but they have a light peach blushing around their black mask.
  • Diet: They feed on fruit, especially berries, and can be found in large flocks during the winter.
  • Habitat: Bohemian Waxwings are often spotted in open woodlands, orchards, and urban areas where they can feed on fruit-bearing trees.
  • Migration: These birds are nomadic, migrating to various areas in search of fruit. Minnesota is within their winter range, so you’ll only see these birds from late fall to early spring.
  • Interesting Facts: Bohemian Waxwings are known for their synchronized, graceful flight patterns and soft, high-pitched calls.

11. Dark-eyed Junco 

slate colored junco winter
Dark-eyed Junco (slate) at home in a wintery landscape | image by:

Scientific Name: Junco hyemalis

This small sparrow comes in a variety of colorations, but the ones most commonly seen in Minnesota is the slate-colored variety.

  • Appearance: Dark-eyed juncos are small, with dark gray plumage and white bellies. They also have conspicuous pink bills.
  • Diet: Their diet consists mainly of seeds, and in backyards will visit for millet and sunflower seeds. They will also consume various insects, such as caterpillars, wasps, flies, ants, and beetles.
  • Habitat: Juncos prefer open woodlands, fields, and gardens, making them common winter visitors to backyard feeders.
  • Migration: Dark-eyed Juncos are migratory, and many individuals move south for the winter. For most of Minnesota, winter is when you will see them. However, some may remain year-round in the far northeastern corner.
  • Interesting Facts: Different populations of Dark-eyed Juncos have distinct color variations, leading to what is known as regional color morphs.

12. Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak | image by dfaulder via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Pinicola enucleator

Despite being seen everywhere in the state of Minnesota, the Pine Grosbeak is seen the most from late December to March from Duluth to Bemidji, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

  • Appearance: Pine Grosbeaks are robust birds. Males have a red head and body with gray wings. Females are mostly gray with yellow on the head and rump. They have a thick beak with a small hook at the end that helps them get seeds from pinecones. 
  • Diet: They feed on seeds, buds, and berries, especially those of coniferous trees.
  • Habitat: Pine Grosbeaks are found in coniferous forests and mountainous areas during the winter.
  • Migration: These birds are nomadic and will move in response to the availability of food. They breed across Canada and in some places in the western U.S., but will only visit Minnesota during the winter months.
  • Interesting Facts: Pine Grosbeaks are known for their tameness, and will often allow close observation by birdwatchers.

13. American Tree Sparrow 

American tree sparrow
Image: Fyn Kynd / flickr / CC BY 2.0

Scientific Name: Spizelloides arborea

Despite its name, the American Tree Sparrow spends most of its time on the ground. They both nest and forage on the ground, but were given their name by European settlers who thought they looked similar to the Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

  • Appearance: American Tree Sparrows have a rusty cap, a dark spot on their breast, and a distinct eye stripe.
  • Diet: They feed on seeds, especially grass seeds, and can be found foraging on the ground or among weeds.
  • Habitat: These sparrows are common in shrubby areas, open fields, and gardens during winter.
  • Migration:These small birds are migratory, moving south to Minnesota for the winter. They leave again in spring to breed in the far northern part of the continent.
  • Interesting Facts: American Tree Sparrows need to consume around 30% of their body weight in food, and about the same amount in water, every day. Not consuming this amount could be fatal for these birds. 

14. Bald Eagle 

bald eagle lake
Bald Eagle | image by AlainAudet via Pixabay

Scientific Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The bald eagle is iconically American and is protected under the federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. In fact, this bird was selected as a national emblem of the United States all the way back in 1782.

  • Appearance: Bald eagles are a large bird of prey with a white head, yellow beak, and dark brown body.
  • Diet: Bald Eagles are opportunistic hunters, feeding on fish and waterfowl, and occasionally scavenging on carrion.
  • Habitat: They are commonly found near large bodies of open water, such as lakes and rivers.
  • Migration: While some Bald Eagles may migrate, many stay in Minnesota throughout the year.
  • Interesting Facts: While Bald Eagles usually hunt on their own, they occasionally team up. One eagle will flush out prey while the other lies in wait.

Minnesota Winters and Bird Adaptations

Minnesota winters, spanning from November to March, are notoriously harsh, with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall posing significant challenges for wildlife. In this environment, birds must adapt to extreme cold by developing specialized behaviors and physical traits. For instance, some species, like the Black-capped Chickadee, can enter a state of regulated hypothermia during extremely cold nights, allowing them to conserve energy.

Others, such as the Snowy Owl, have adapted thick layers of down feathers and specialized circulatory systems to maintain body heat in subzero temperatures. Additionally, many birds adjust their foraging behaviors, seeking out high-energy foods like seeds and berries to sustain themselves through the winter months. The state’s coldest recorded temperature, reaching -60°F (-51°C) in Tower, Minnesota in February 1996, highlights the severity of its winters and underscores the resilience of nature in the face of such extreme climates.

How Winter Birds Survive in Minnesota

In Minnesota’s brutal winters, birds must get creative to survive. With temperatures plunging and snowstorms hitting hard, they switch up their diets, munching on seeds and berries instead of insects. They huddle together in flocks for warmth and protection, seeking shelter in dense bushes or behind buildings. It’s a tough life, but these birds know how to adapt to extreme conditions and thrive in the cold.

Many birds fly south for warmer weather in winter

In Minnesota, where winters can be harsh and unforgiving, the survival strategies of winter birds are as diverse as they are intriguing. While many avian species opt for the warmer climates of southern regions during the colder months, a resilient population chooses to brave the frigid conditions.

They often change their diet

To endure the scarcity of food sources, wintering birds adapt their diets, shifting from insects and fruits to seeds and berries which are more abundant in the winter landscape. This dietary flexibility enables them to sustain themselves through the long, snowy months.

Survival often means strength in numbers

Many winter birds form small flocks, with several different species traveling around together. Without having to compete this time of year for nest sites and mates, birds can work together to find food sources. A consistent supply of food is important to keep body fat up to beat the cold.

Finding a protected hideaway

Finding suitable roosting spots is another critical aspect of winter survival for birds in Minnesota. Sheltered areas such as dense evergreen forests, thickets, and the leeward sides of buildings offer protection from biting winds and snowstorms. These locations provide not only warmth but also refuge from predators, allowing birds to conserve energy during the harsh winter nights.

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.

Why do some birds in Minnesota not migrate?

In Minnesota, some birds choose not to migrate due to the abundance of food sources available year-round, particularly in the form of seeds and berries. Additionally, certain species have evolved physiological adaptations that enable them to withstand the extreme cold and harsh conditions of winter.

For these birds, the benefits of staying put outweigh the risks of migrating, as they have access to established territories and familiar roosting sites. Moreover, competition for resources may be lower during the winter months, further incentivizing resident birds to remain in Minnesota throughout the year.

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