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Winged Wonders of Penn’s Woods in Your Backyard

By Cathy Hart

More than 400 species of birds make their home in the 46,000 square miles that make up Penn’s Woods. But you don’t have to travel the state to find them. You can enjoy many right in your own backyard. Let’s take a look at what you might find.

Without any effort — meaning putting up feeders and their accompanying earnest but generally ineffective anti-squirrel accoutrements — you’ll see blue jays, cardinals, flickers, and robins almost all year round. Properties with hedges and thickets typically draw in mockingbirds. Add a water source such as a pond and some tall grasses, and you may draw in red-winged blackbirds.

Once you introduce a regular food source by way of feeders filled with favorite foods, you’ll increase who comes for a visit. Feeders come in all shapes and sizes, and some are designed to serve up specific types of bird seed of interest to particular species. For example, in the springtime and through summer, a nyger/sunflower seed mix is sure to bring in goldfinches with their bright yellow bodies and black wings. Filling a hummingbird feeder with nectar will bring the energetic, flying jewel-like ruby-throated hummingbird. (Pro tip: Only the males sport the trademark red. If you don’t see it, she’s a she.)  In any season, a suet cake will make downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and tufted titmice very happy.

When blue jays are around, try putting out some unshelled peanuts. More than once I was treated to the same intriguing show after tossing out some peanuts. A jay lands near the peanuts, then carefully picks one up, then puts it down until he finds the perfect peanut. Once he does, he flies away to a nearby perch to enjoy his treat.

While that’s one show you might see on occasion, a regular visual to behold is the frenetic activity of the ground feeders that satisfy their cravings with the seeds that fall from above. Song sparrows and chipping sparrows are common sights. Many sparrows look very similar, often referred affectionately by birders as LBJs (Little Brown Jobs), but the song sparrow is distinct. This sparrow can be “spotted” by the prominent black dot on its chest. Meanwhile, the chipping sparrow also stands out from the crowd. The most telling characteristics are its size – just 5 1/2 inches – and the reddish-brown color on the top of its head.

Like cardinals and blue jays, song and chipping sparrows generally hang around all year. In the winter months, the white-throated sparrow comes a-callin’. Look for a plump brown bird whose shortish bill has patches of yellow on both sides, rounded out below with a neat patch of white. Another winter visitor is the dark-eyed junco. The junco’s mostly dark plumage is contrasted with white visible on its chest. When it takes wing, you’ll see the tell-tale flash of white on its tail.

Then as winter gives way to spring and the white-throated sparrows and juncos head out, a whole new season of backyard birding begins. Whether you’re in an urban or rural setting, you can see more than a dozen species. Another pro tip: Get a field guide to help you identify the visitors to your slice of Penn’s Woods. Watching the antics of our winged friends is a relaxing and rewarding way to spend a portion of your day.

Originally published in The York Builders Association’s 2018 issue of At Home in York Magazine.

About the Author

Cathy Hart is a self-described word and bird nerd. She is the former editor-in-chief of Wildfowl Carving Magazine. Her love of birds blossomed during her tenure with the magazine that showcases all kinds of realistically carved and painted birds. These replicas inspired her to go looking for them in the wild, and she took to the woods to experience the joy and at times frustration of bird watching.