15 Common Songbirds of Pennsylvania
Birds in Your Backyard
If you live in the Northeastern United States you are lucky to be in a region that supports a diverse array of bird species. The fields, woodlands and water sources of the Northeast, combined with the patchwork of yards and lawns, presents an ideal situation for many songbirds. Birds are everywhere, but if you haven’t stopped to pay attention you may not realize just how many interesting songbirds you can see right in your own backyard.
You don’t have to make a special trip or trek into the woods to see the birds listed in this article. If you live in a rural area, chances are they are already coming to your property now and then. If you live in a city, sitting on a park bench for any amount of time will likely mean you’ll see a few.
Putting up an inexpensive bird feeder will increase your chances of spotting some of these amazing birds. Or, why not take some easy steps to transform your property into a bird sanctuary? Adding a water source such as a birdbath as well as some natural vegetation will attract species that will not come to your bird feeder.
Here are some of the most common songbirds of the Northeast.
The American Goldfinch is a small yellow-and-black bird, and one of the most vibrant you will see in your yard. The male has striking bright-yellow plumage with a black cap, where the female has a duller yellow-brown color and no cap. In the winter, both sexes molt into an olive-brown color.
The Goldfinch is a seed-eater who will readily come to your bird feeder. Sunflower seeds are a favorite, as is njyer or thistle seed. Even better, plant a few sunflowers and allow natural thistle to grow in your yard and watch the little Goldfinch harvest straight from the plants in the late summer and autumn.
A common sight in yards throughout the Northeast, the American Robin is perhaps the most visible of any bird on this list. It is easy to recognize with its orange breast and dark gray back and head.
The American Robin will not come to a seed feeder, but you may attract it using a ground feeder stocked with mealworms or similar. However, there is really no need to go out of your way to bring this bird around. It will happily hunt worms, grubs and insects in your yard throughout the spring and summer.
In most areas of the Northeast the American Robin migrates south in early autumn and returns in early spring.
Here is another bird that will not come to your seed feeder. You may have some luck attracting it with it with citrus fruit or special Oriole nectar feeders. On my property I see this bird most often in the springtime, when the blossoms are out on my apple and pear trees. The Oriole will flit from branch to branch, merrily singing away as it examines the flowers.
Males have a bright orange breast with dark black head and wings. Females have a more yellowish breast and lighter colors on the head and wings.
One of smallest birds in your backyard is also one of the boldest. The Black-capped Chickadee is extremely tolerant of humans, and has even been known to take food from a person’s hand. Chances are you are already familiar with the song of this little bird, whether you know it or not. The familiar two-tone whistle and chick-a-dee-dee-dee are common sounds throughout the Northeast.
The Black-capped Chickadee is very easy to attract with a simple feeder and seed mix. You may wish to use a smaller tube feeder for species like the Chickadee, Goldfinch and other small birds, to prevent larger bully birds from pushing them around.
Speaking of bullies, the Blue Jay is a bird that has somewhat of a reputation as the bad guy of the backyard. It’s easy to see why: Blue Jays are highly intelligent and larger than most other songbirds. They use these tools to their advantage, sometimes chasing away other birds or even attacking their nests.
But the Blue Jay’s smarts also serve to help other bird species. Blue Jays are often the first to sound an alarm when a predator is near, and their loud communication can alert other birds to a food source.
There are several sparrows in the Northeast, and sometimes they are a little tough to tell apart. The Chipping Sparrow is among the most common, and can be distinguished by its reddish-brown cap, relatively white breast and defined markings. This little bird has no trouble mingling with other smaller birds at your feeder, or foraging on the ground underneath, but you will also see it hunting insects in the branches of trees.
You will often hear the Chipping Sparrow chirping away or “chipping” from the tops of trees, and this is presumably where it gets its name.
The Dark-eyed Junco makes an appearance in the Northeastern United States during the winter months, though I have occasionally witnessed a lone Junco sticking around well into the summer. More typically, this bird will be gone by late spring, having returned to its summer breeding grounds in Canada.
These guys are easy to spot as they will congregate on the ground beneath your feeder to forage for seed. Their dark-gray backs and light-colored bellies make them stand out, especially if there is snow on the ground. In fact, some people in my area call them snowbirds because they are so visible in winter.
With its quirky behaviors and sharp black-and-white plumage the Downy Woodpecker is one of my favorite birds. It may seem shy at first, but once it identifies your feeder as a place to find a good meal you will see it coming around quite often.
You may also see the Downy Woodpecker coming around if you have a few dead trees on or near your property. It will drum away in search of insects, and for such a small bird it sure can make a racket!
Also be on the lookout for its larger and rarer cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. These birds look nearly identical aside from their size.
The Eastern Bluebird is an insect-eater with easily recognizable bright-blue plumage. You may see it hunting it nearby fields and lawns, or perching on poles or trees as it surveys its domain. This beautiful bird has suffered in years past, but in recent times has seen a resurgence in its population.
One thing people can do to encourage Eastern Bluebird population growth is put up a Bluebird nesting box. However, if you choose to do so be sure to follow the recommended practices for nest box placement and management.
They Gray Catbird will have no interest in your seed feeder, but it may come to birdbaths. It will certainly appreciate gardens and shrubs for hunting if you choose to plant them.
If you listen closely you’ll see how the Gray Catbird got its name. It mews like a cat! But that’s actually only one of the many songs you’ll hear out of this blabbermouth bird. More often it seems to blurt a disjointed string of chirps and whistles, and will make its presence known even when you can’t see it.
These chubby gray birds look somewhat like miniature pigeons with prettier plumage. Their soft cooing can be heard from atop trees and telephone wires. The Mourning Dove will clean up seed beneath your feeder, but may also attempt to land on larger, platform-style feeders.
It’s comical to watch these strange birds wander around your yard, with their bobbing gaits and odd interactions between individuals. You will also notice a whistling whenever they take flight. This sound is not a vocalization, but actually comes from special feathers on their wings.
One of the most beautiful birds that will visit your yard is the Northern Cardinal. It is also one of the best singers! The males have bright red plumage, where the females are a more subdued brown coloring. You will often see them come to you feeder in pairs, male and female together.
Sunflower seeds are a favorite of the Northern Cardinal, especially in winter. They are a common bird, and easy to attract. Be aware that smaller tube feeders may not accommodate this bird as it is not as acrobatic as other larger species like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, or as determined as the Blue Jay. If you want to make your property comfortable for Cardinals, choose a feeder with larger perches.
The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is an interesting bird with a range that reaches into the Northeast, though they are also common in the Southeastern United States. These birds are a frequent visitor to my feeder, and are adept at clinging to branches, trunks of trees and even doing some gymnastics on the feeder itself.
You’ll recognize its trilling call around your home once you are familiar with this bird. But don’t make the mistake of calling it a Red-headed Woodpecker despite the red cap on its head. That’s a different bird altogether!
A migrant that spends its winters in a tropical paradise, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak appears in the Northeast around mid-to-late spring. The males are hard to miss with their black-and-white plumage and red spots on their chests, but identifying the female is a little tougher. She has brown and white plumage, more like a sparrow, but once you know her you will see her as often as the male.
The Rose-beasted Grosbeak is a shy bird, but once it finds your feeder it will be a frequent visitor. A basic feeder with a good seed mix is all you need to bring this world-traveler to your doorstep.
Along with the American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee and Chipping Sparrow, the Tufted Titmouse is among the littlest visitors that will come to your bird feeder. It is easy to recognize by the “tuft” atop its head, and looks somewhat like a tiny, gray Blue Jay.
Like the Black-capped Chickadee, the Tufted Titmouse has a fondness for sunflower seeds. Both birds will steal away a single seed from your feeder, and take to a nearby branch to crack open and consume before returning for another.
The White-breasted Nuthatch is a small bird with black, gray and white plumage. It is notable for moving down the trunk of a tree head-first. It will be happy to come to your feeder for a standard seed mix, but will also enjoy suet and especially peanuts.
Keep an eye out for the White-breasted Nuthatch hunting along the trunks of nearby trees. It will search the bark for insects and manage to configure itself in some bizarre positions along the way.
All of the birds in this article were photographed on or near my property. I’ll be adding more when I get some better pictures of a few different species. I hope you enjoy spotting these interesting songbirds as much as I do, and if you live in the Northeast you should have no trouble bringing them around.
Good luck, and enjoy the birds!