Common Types of Backyard Birds in the Northeast
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
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!
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.
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.
Chickadees and Titmice
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Families: Passerellidae (New World) and Passeridae (Old World)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Orioles and Blackbirds
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.
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.
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.
Thrashers and Mockingbirds
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.
Crows and Jays
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.
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.