Common Birds In Your Backyard

As mentioned in my previous blog, there are over 18,000 bird species on Earth. For beginning birders this can be quite overwhelming, but as with any topic of interest, it’s best to start small. In this blog I will highlight three commonly seen songbirds, key identification characteristics, calls for each species, and how you can help our local birds. You might be surprised how much you already know!

Northern Cardinal
Cardinalis cardinalis 
By Linda Hartong [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Male northern cardinal (left) feeding a female (right), in a flowering eastern redbud tree (Cercis canadensis).

Identification by Sight
  • Mature males are bright red with a black “mask”, a thick orange bill and a red crest on the top of its head
  • Mature females are lighter brown with a less distinct black “mask” and also have an orange bill
  • Females also have a tinge of red in their wings, tail and the tip of their crest
Identification by Sound

Spring and into the first part of summer is prime time to hear male cardinals sing, though they do sing year-round. The females call too, but the males do more calling to try and attract a mate.

Cardinals are reported to have 16 different calls, but some of the most common ones are:

  • A call that we often refer to as “laser beams” or “Darth Vader”…you’ll know it when you hear it. It can start off with a wheep, wheep and then goes into laser beam mode with short, quick do, do, do, do
  • They also have a call that is a two-part whistle sounding like birdie, birdie, birdie and often ends in a downward trill
  • Their other common call is a short, high-pitched chip.
How to Help

Understory vegetation is preferred for feeding and nesting habitat. Cardinals mostly feed on seeds and fruit. Some plants you can add to your yard they would like include:

They also feed on insects, especially when raising young. Plants like grasses and sedges (mention above) are great habitat for smaller invertebrate species.

Tufted Titmouse
Baeolophus bicolor
By Mike's Birds (Tufted Titmouse Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tufted titmouse perched on a branch. Note its large eyes, its crest, the black patch above the dark bill, rusty-colored side, dark grey back and white belly.

Identification by Sight
  • Males and females look similar unlike the contrasting northern cardinals
  • They are light to dark gray on top with a white belly and hint of rust color on the side
  • Their heads and eyes are large and they have no distinct neck
  • Similar to the northern cardinal, tufted titmouse also have a crest on their head and “mask” on their face. The crest on the tufted titmouse is grey and their mask is more like a black patch just above the bill.
Identification by Sound

The most common song sung by the tufted titmouse is a fast and repeated whistle that sounds like it’s saying peter-peter-peter.

Other calls this bird makes are more for altering others of predators. They sound more nasally and almost like what you would image a bird might sound like when it’s trying to defend its territory or alter others of potential dangers. One of these calls, we say sounds like skin-yin-yin-yin.

How to Help

Tufted titmice are cavity-nesters, so you can help by:

  • Building or putting up a nest box before breeding season begins. Setting it up at the start of winter should be enough time before they start their nesting in April.
  • Leaving standing dead trees in your yard can also become a source of natural cavities

Their diet consists mainly of insects in the summer time and seeds and fruit other times of the year. Tall grasses and sedges provide great habitat for many of the insect species tufted titmice like to eat. They are also fond of caterpillars, so planting some larval (of the butterfly) host plants can provide a food source too!

Carolina Wren
Thryothorus ludovicianus
By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carolina wren perched on wooden railing. Note its very stout body, lifted tail, white “eyebrow” and long, skinny, curved bill.

Identification by Sight
  • Males and females look similar
  • These birds are small, but plump with a tail that is often perked up instead of hanging down
  • They are chestnut brown above and rusty orange below with a long, slender, downward-curved bill
  • Carolina wrens have a whitish chin and a long white “eyebrow” that extends to the back of the head
Identification by Sound

Carolina wrens are known for being one of the smallest birds with the loudest voice. Males are the only ones that sing songs. They are a quick series of three-parted notes that sound like teakettle-teakettle-teakettle or if you want a more fun version you can think cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

They have many calls too, but some of the most common include:

  • A call like the northern cardinals’ laser beam but a trilling version of it
  • Another is like a high pitched whistle that says Jimmy-Jimmy-Jimmy really fast
How to Help

Carolina wrens LOVE spiders and insects. So again, planting grasses and sedges and shrubs that attract these things are helpful.

If you have done any tree trimming or have a large branch that has fallen in your yard, you can consider leaving it there too as that become a great source of bugs as the wood rots!

Wrens will also feed on plants to supplement their diet:

Graphic by: Shannon Carnevale using CanvaFor more information, tune into our next Wildlife Wednesday Webinar on “Florida’s Small but Significant Songbirds”.

Happy Learning!