Autumn Birds

by Terry Maupin

Autumn signals a time to say “goodbye” to many fascinating birds that will now migrate to warmer climates for winter. Gone until spring are Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Vaux’s Swifts, and Barn, Violet-green, and Tree Swallows. They migrate south because their supply of food diminishes in our Pacific Northwest winter.

Autumn is also a time to say “hello” to birds that migrate in from colder climates of the north and in the mountains. Willamette Valley winters are mild and offer them an abundance of seeds, soft and exposed ground, and fresh water.

Coming to our region for the cold months includes members of the sparrow family—like White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows. We also welcome in Varied Thrushes, Hermit Thrushes, Townsend’s Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Pine Siskins.  In many neighborhoods, there will be a notable increase in numbers of Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Anna’s Hummingbirds.  (That’s right! We have hummingbirds that stay with us all winter long!)


For members of the sparrow family, watch the ground!  Sparrows, juncos, towhees and thrushes all feed on or near the ground much of the time. Whereas watch for warblers at your suet feeders.

White-crowned Sparrows is a chunky sparrow with a plain grayish breast and has conspicuous white and black stripes on its crown.  Juvenile birds have brown and white crowns.

Golden-crowned Sparrow is similar to the White-crowned Sparrow but has a golden-yellow central crown stripe with dark bands on either side.

* Fox Sparrow this bird is larger and more uniform in color than a Song Sparrow. Look for its distinct eye ring, for yellow at the base of the bill, and spots or chevron marks on its breast.

* Varied Thrush is a showy bird with slate-blue back and pumpkin-orange breast with a broad black necklace.  Look for orange eyebrows and wing bars and a dark face mask. Females have the same markings, but colors are more subdued.

* Hermit Thrush is a plump sparrow-sized bird with a bouncy hop as it moves about the edges of the yard. It has brownish back and wings and a cinnamon-red tail, its light-colored throat is marked with dark spots that become smudges lower on the breast.

* Townsend’s Warbler is a small greenish-backed bird with striking yellow and black marks on it’s face and body. Males have a black throat while the females are yellow.

* Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter is a small gray, white and pale-yellow bird. Look for yellow at the base of the tail, which is how it got its name.  Both the white-throated or yellow-throated subspecies winter with us.  

* Pine Siskin is a small streaky brown bird with a pointy sharp bill and a deeply notched tail.

* Spotted Towhee is often mistaken for a robin, but they are smaller and unlike robins, they kick with both feet to rummage through leaf litter Look for the red eyes, a cone-shaped bill, a white under belly, and white spots on its black wings and tail. Females colors are more subdued.

* Dark-eyed Junco is a sparrow that wears a black or grayish hood, has a pale bill, a reddish-brown back, buffy sides and a white belly. Their long tail flashes white outer edges in flight.


Fall is an excellent time of the year to “expand the restaurant” for your feathered friends. Most songbirds’ diets are heavy on insects and spiders during spring and summer.  Insects are highly nutritious and most abundant during warmer months.  However, during fall and winter insects are less abundant and birds begin to eat seeds, nuts, and fruit in the wild.

What should be on the menu?

Black Oil Sunflower Seeds are the seeds that virtually all seed-eating birds enjoy.  These seeds have a high meat-to-shell ratio, and they are nutritious and high in fat.  Their small, soft shell enables even small birds like chickadees and nuthatches to handle and crack them.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts confirm that both black oil sunflower or sunflower hearts are a favorite of birds that visit seed feeders.

Specialties Seeds:

White Proso Millet is a great food for keeping sparrows, juncos, towhees, doves and Varied Thrush happy and blackbirds love this grain too.

Cracked Corn is enjoyed by all birds that eat millet plus Band-tailed Pigeons, jays, crows, quail and pheasants.  Dried, Whole-kernel Corn is all-the-more popular with the larger birds.

Nyger (often called “thistle”) is a sterilized relative of thistle seed we know, but is a composite flower grown in Africa. Goldfinches and Pine Siskins have bills that make quick work of shelling these tiny seeds while most other birds would prefer a beefier seed to open. Doves often will pick through the shells that fall to the ground to find uneaten seeds that take whole.

Tree Nuts and Peanuts are foods that many backyard birds will consider a good prize!  Jays and crows are notorious for loving these, but few people realize that towhees, Varied Thrush, chickadees and nuthatches will select these large morsels over smaller seeds when the nuts shelled. 

How To Serve: The least wasteful method of feeding a variety of seeds is truly to offer one seed per feeder.  In fact, if you fill a feeder with a seed mix, you’re likely to observe many birds kicking out the smaller seeds to get to the prized sunflower seeds!

Suet –A High Energy Food:  As the weather gets colder, insects become scarce and insect-eating birds like Bushtits, chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches turn to suet as a supplemental food.  Suet is beef fat that has been rendered at a high heat to remove impurities which also gives it a longer shelf life. Many of the suet cakes we sell have insects, peanut butter, peanuts, tree nuts, and/or sunflower seeds added to increase the protein and overall nutritional value of the cake. Suet that has a heavy load of grains or grain-by-products offer less nutritional value but will still eaten by birds. Be aware that even at their reduced costs, suets with heavy grain loads are a costly way to feed birds inexpensive grains.