Common Types of Backyard Birds in the Northeast

Updated on May 28, 2018
EricDockett profile image

Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.

The Baltimore Oriole is a Passerine bird of the family Icteridae .
The Baltimore Oriole is a Passerine bird of the family Icteridae .

Passeriformes

When identifying songbirds in your backyard it is often helpful to start by figuring out what type of bird you are observing. From there you can whittle it down based on color, size and behavior and, using a handy field guide, discover the proper name of your visitor.

Songbirds fall under the order Passeriformes, which splits off into many different families. You’ll read about some of those families in this article, and I think you’ll be surprised to see how some songbirds are related.

I photographed all of the birds you’ll see in this article on or near my property, and most are fairly common to the Northeastern United States. The images and information you will find here are intended to help you identify your own backyard visitors.

Admittedly, this list is incomplete due to regional and probably local distribution differences. You may see different birds where you are, and you may never see some I’ve listed here.

I hope you find this guide helpful. Feel free to note your local sightings in the comments section.

Cardinals, Grosbeaks and Buntings

Family: Cardinalidae

Northern Cardinal

The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is one of the most well-known birds in the United States, and one of the best singers. Males are bright red, where females are a lighter, brownish color with hints of red.

Cardinals will readily come to you feeder, especially if you offer sunflower seeds. They have no problem feeding on the ground, but if you choose a feeder with large enough perches they won’t have to.

In the northern and westernmost reaches of their range they may migrate, but in most areas of the east they are year-long residents. A male Cardinal during a snowfall is a beautiful sight!

Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is one of my favorite birds. Their appearance is part of the reason. The males have striking black-and-white plumage, accented by a bright red patch on their chest. The female is a looker too, but with her gorgeous brown and white streaking she may be tough to identify at first.

The other reason I like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is because of its migration. This bird overwinters in the tropics of South and Central America, some as far east as the Caribbean. When it comes back to North America, summer isn’t far behind.

To me the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, not the American Robin, gets the credit for bringing the spring.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Indigo Bunting

The Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) was once very common in my area, but they have become harder to spot. I see them most often in my fruit trees while they are blossoming in the spring. Less often they come to my feeders, and they seem to prefer hunting over gathering. You may have some luck with nyjer seed.

They’re small, beautiful birds. The males have a deep blue coloring and the females a soft brown. In some areas of the southern US you may see them year-round, but here in the Northeast they are gone for the winter.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting

Chickadees and Titmice

Family: Paridae

Black-capped Chickadee

The Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)is one of the most common birds in my backyard, and one of the boldest. They’re the small, back-and-white birds, and as their name suggests they have a black cap on their heads that resembles a mask. Their call of chick-a-dee-dee-dee is standard outdoor music in most parts of the east.

These little guys will happily eat sunflower seeds, and will take away a single seed at a time, bringing it to a nearby branch to crack open and consume. I also see them chasing insects, especially in the spring when the blossoms are out.

Black-capped Chickdee
Black-capped Chickdee

Tufted Titmouse

Like the Black-capped Chickadee, the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) is an energetic little bird that likes to steal seeds and munch on them in privacy. They, too, are frequent visitors, and resemble little, gray Blue Jays.

Titmice and Chickadees both exhibit another interesting behavior in my yard. When I take my feeders in at night I often leave them on the railing of my deck for a few minutes while I sort things out. Every other type of bird continues to go to where the feeders usually are and stare at the open space. Only the Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice seem able to figure out that the feeder was moved and they can still get food from it.

Tufted Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse

Nuthatches

Family: Sittidae

White-breasted Nuthatch

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is the comedian of the backyard, but doesn’t seem to know it. It contorts itself is some bizarre positions as it tries to find insects along the trunks of trees. In addition to the food it finds hunting, it will happily take food from your feeder, and especially loves peanuts.

When the feeder is crowded the Nuthatch will sometimes lurk stealthily in the background until all is clear. Hey! We can still see you, you know!

This bird is also one of the few backyard visitors that will cache food on occasion, to help it get through the long winter ahead.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I don’t often spot the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) in my area, but managed to snap the above picture when I did. I do hear them on occasion, though, so I know they are around.

Like their white-breasted cousin they hunt for insects in trees for much of their food. They stick to the treetops, but will come to a feeder when they find it.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Thrushes

Family: Turdidae

American Robin

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is possibly the most well-known bird in the United States. It’s a migratory bird that will leave most northern places in early fall, and when they return it is seen as a sure sign of spring.

That might work for you, but where I live the first returning Robins usually get snowed on for a while before spring finally starts to pop.

The American Robin is highly visible, hunting in yards and gardens. It won’t come to your feeder, but if you put up a birdbath it might come around. You might even notice it nesting nearby and spot pairs of Robins in your yard. The male is recognized by his more vibrant colors.

American Robin
American Robin

Eastern Bluebird

This is a bird I hear often, but only see occasionally. The Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) was once common in my area, then became rare, and is now making resurgence. I have done everything in my power to lure them in, including putting up big feeders stocked with meal worms.

They occasionally come to my bird bath, but seem more interested in hunting in the nearby fields. When I search them out I often see them perched on wire or fences as they look for lunch.

This bird is easy to recognize by its bright blue colors, but I suggest getting familiar with its call so you know when it is around.

Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird

Wood Thrush

You won’t see the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at your seed feeder, but if you live in the rural Northeast I bet you'll hear it all the time. Along with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, it is one of my favorite birds. It, too, migrates a long way every fall and spring, overwintering in Central and South America.

It also has what I think is the most beautiful song in the bird world, and due to its unique voice box is even capable of harmonizing with itself.

I most often hear them singing in the nearby forest. On occasion one emerges from the safety of the woods and comes into my yard to investigate things.

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush

Sparrows

Families: Passerellidae (New World) and Passeridae (Old World)

Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine) is one of the smallest visitors that will come to your feeder. Sparrows can be tough to identify, especially if you have a bunch of them buzzing around, so watch for the reddish-brown cap atop his head. All that’s needed to bring them around is a feeder with a good seed mix.

Also listen for it chirping or chipping in nearby trees. This, presumably, is where the Chipping Sparrow gets its name. Despite their size they are bold little birds and, at least in my backyard, are known for the occasional dust-up with a Chickadee or Titmouse.

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is called the snowbird by some people in my area. That’s because it arrives in the winter. While the birds in the Northeast typically fly south for the winter, the Dark-eyed Junco spends the breeding season in Canada and Alaska. So, when they come here they are flying south for the winter, as far as they are concerned.

These birds are easy to spot with their sharp black and gray plumage, especially when there is snow on the ground. They’ll perch at your feeder or feed on the ground, and in the winter months they are one of the most common birds in my backyard.

Dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco

White-crowned Sparrow

If you live in the Northeast you will get to see the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) in the spring on its way to its summer breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. If you live a little further south you’ll likely get to see them all winter, like the Dark-eyed Junco.

These birds are frequent visitors to my feeders when they are around. They tend to be ground feeders, lurking beneath my pine trees and scampering out to get some seed. If I blink I miss them, but they are still among my favorite birds to spot. They are a little bit rare, and very pretty.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

Song Sparrow

This spring a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) pair has nested in a bush outside my house. The male spends his day flitting around the nearby area, and stopping to sing his song at regular intervals. He seems to have decided that a decoration on my door, my basement window and the top of one of my small blue spruce trees are his highest-rated singing spots.

They come to my feeder as well, and Song Sparrows are always frequent visitors even when they haven’t nested outside my doorstep.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

House Sparrow

The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is actually an old-world sparrow of the family Passeridae. They were introduced to the United States back in the 1800s and have since spread across most of the continent. They are very common in areas where humans live, and it doesn’t take much to get them to come to your feeder.

I have mixed feelings about this bird. They are beautiful and I enjoy their presence, but they also a somewhat invasive species. They take over nest boxes, making things tough for species like the Eastern Bluebird.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow

Finches

Family: Fringillidae

American Goldfinch

It’s hard to miss the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) when it comes to your yard. The male has striking bright yellow plumage, with a back cap atop his head. Females and juveniles are a subdued brownish color, and even the males lose his luster in the winter, molting into drab shades.

The American Goldfinch will come to your feeder for sunflower seeds and once they find it will be frequent visitors. If you really want to have some fun with this bird, plant some sunflowers and allow natural thistle to grow around your property. You’ll get to watch the Goldfinch do some harvesting in the late summer and autumn.

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

House Finch

The House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a migrant from the western United States. Males have a bright red patch on their head and chest, where the female has brown and white streaking. They will be frequent visitors to your feeder.

Be on the lookout for the Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) as well. These two birds are tough to tell apart, and it will take some practice. You can start by checking distribution maps to see which bird you should expect in your area and when.

House Finch
House Finch

Orioles and Blackbirds

Family: Icteridae

Baltimore Oriole

As I do with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, I really look forward to my first sighting of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbul) each spring. They, too, will migrate as far south as South America, but they come back to hunt for insects when the blossoms are out on my apple and pear trees. With their bright orange plumage they are easy to spot.

The Oriole’s song is as loud and distinctive as its appearance, and once you know it you will recognize it throughout the summer. They won’t eat seeds, but you may have luck luring them closer with sliced oranges or special Oriole nectar feeders.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

Red-winged Blackbird

The Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a gregarious bird found in most of the Northeast year-round. They may try to get food from your feeder, but usually have better luck forging on the ground. You will see them in most areas, and the males are identifiable by their deep black plumage, accented by red and yellow markings on their wings.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds can also be territorial, and you may notice a few entanglements between individuals around your yard.

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird

Common Grackle

There was a time when flocks of Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) and Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) would dominate bird feeders in my local area. For some reason they aren’t as common as a decade ago, but they are still around.

The Grackle will come to your feeder, and isn’t picky about what you put out. They are beautiful birds, with blue heads and black bodies. They are also abrasive, resourceful scavengers that can decimate cornfields, and even pose a potential threat to other live animals. In the winter they might travel in large flocks along with other blackbirds and Starlings.

Common Grackle
Common Grackle

Thrashers and Mockingbirds

Family: Mimidae

Gray Catbird

The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) has some of the most interesting vocalizations of any bird in the Northeast. As their name suggests, they are capable of sounding something like a cat. They’ll also copy other birds, or sometimes let loose with what seems like a senseless stream of chirps and whistles.

Catbirds overwinter in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In far eastern areas they may stay year-round, but where I live they return in the springtime.

They will hunt in gardens and shrubs, so you might see them around your yard, but they will not come to your birdfeeder. However, they do seem to enjoy my birdbath, as well as the mealworms I sprinkling around the garden.

Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird

Crows and Jays

Family: Corvidae

Blue Jay

The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a member of the Corvid family, and a relative of the American Crow. They are large, beautiful songbirds, and add wonderful color to a backyard. But they are also aggressive, and extremely intelligent. They may bully other birds, and take over a feeder.

Blue Jays oven travel in groups, and when they arrive they make a racket. Though they can intimidate smaller birds, they also sound the alarm when predators are near.

I happen to like them, but it’s easy to see why some people consider them undesirable. I reduce issues by using several feeders of different sizes, one too small for the Blue Jays to perch. This means the little birds always have a safe place to feed.

Blue Jay
Blue Jay

References and Further Reading

As always, the following resources were indispensible in researching this article, especially when it came to getting those scientific names straight:

If you are interested in learning more about birds, I suggesting getting familiar with both of those websites and referring to them frequently. They are outstanding for identifying different visitors to your backyard and their songs.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • EricDockett profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Dockett 

        2 months ago from USA

        Thanks Serena and Suhail!

        @Suhail - Most of these picture were cropped at least a bit. Birds are quick little things, so I often end up backing out on the shot a little with the idea that I can crop/center later. I still have a lot to learn too!

      • Suhail and my dog profile image

        Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

        2 months ago from Mississauga, ON

        Hi Eric,

        Informative and reader friendly article!

        I think most birds of The US' northeast and of Ontario are common. I also do lots of wildlife photography, but I really liked yours. My shots tend to capture background/habitat a lot. Several people want me to crop the images. Now I see why would they recommend me doing it.

        I hope to read many more articles on this topic from you.

        Regards,

      • profile image

        Serena Tike 

        2 months ago

        Awesome pictures!

      • EricDockett profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Dockett 

        2 months ago from USA

        Thank you, Linda! I appreciate the kind words.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        This is a very enjoyable article that contains lovely photos. Thank you for sharing the interesting information about the birds that you see.

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