Out My Backdoor: Unusual Backyard Visitors

Yellow-rumped warbler. (Terry W. Johnson)

By Terry W. Johnson

We seem to enjoy the sights and sounds of the birds that visit our feeders and bird baths more in winter than at any other time of the year. This is a time when the weather often limits outside activities.

However, in spite of the fact that we are sometimes confined to our house during this hash season, we can still enjoy watching birds feeding, bathing and drinking from the comfort of our home.

Depending on where you live in the state, your list of regular winter backyard residents might include birds such as chipping sparrows, northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, and tufted titmice. These are our bird staples; birds that you can depend on to regularly visit feeders and bird baths throughout the winter.

From time to time, however, an unusual visitor will drop in for a visit. Spotting such a bird is an exciting experience. It elevates the enjoyment of backyard birding to a new plateau.

With that in mind, let's take a look at five of the more unusual birds, other than hummingbirds, that might visit our bird baths and feeders during the harshest season of the year. In addition, I am going to offer a few tips that will increase the odds such birds will be more than one-time visitors.

Baltimore Oriole

For most Georgians, the Baltimore oriole is a bird only briefly seen during its spring and fall migration.

The male is without doubt one of the most beautiful birds in North America. He has a jet black head, neck and back. His wings are highlighted with white wing bars. Most of the rest of the plumage is bright orange. Although the female is a more somber version of the male, she has her own subtle beauty.

The vast majority of Baltimore orioles winter in southern Mexico southward to Columbia. However, for reasons that are not fully understood, for more than a century, increasing numbers of this eye-popping, long-distance migrant have been regularly wintering from New England to the southeastern U.S.

If a Baltimore oriole shows up in your backyard this winter, the food they seem to prefer is grape jelly. When one showed up in my yard a couple of decades ago, my wife and I served the bird jelly in a small plastic container similar to those used by restaurants to serve dressing or sauces.

I know a couple in Thomasville who fed five Baltimore orioles that spent the winter in their backyard small, powdered sugar doughnuts offered in a wire suet feeder.

Winter orioles are also known to partake of suet, halved oranges and apples, bananas, cooked raisins, pecan pieces, and cracked corn.

The Baltimore oriole has the reputation of preferring one food in one location while totally ignoring it somewhere else. With this in mind, if one appears in your yard, it might be wise to experiment with a number of different foods.

Orange-crowned Warbler

The orange-crowned warbler is among the most nondescript of our warblers. The bird is olive-green. However, its underside is slightly lighter and more yellow than its back.

The orange-crowned warbler nests as far north as the tree line in the Arctic and winters as far south as Guatemala. In the winter, this bird is an uncommon resident above the Fall Line and uncommon to common in south Georgia. Those birds that winter here prefer thickets or open woodlands where there is a thick understory. Orange-crowned warblers can also be seen in yards with thick shrubs. 

When one stakes a claim to a backyard, it is rarely seen because it spends most of its time foraging for food in shrubs and trees. You can sometimes coax one into the open by providing it with food offerings they have been known to use. For example, if you are maintaining a feeder this winter in hopes of attracting a wintering hummingbird, an orange-crowned warbler might drop in to drink the sweet hummingbird food. Some of the other foods they are known to consume are doughnuts, suet, peanut butter, raisins and finely chopped nuts.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Although the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a winter resident from the coast to the mountains, it rarely makes an appearance at our feeders.

This medium-sized woodpecker is truly attractive. It sports a long, white wing patch, a black streak across its breast and a dark back festooned with colors ranging from gold to white.

The thing that separates the yellow-bellied sapsucker from other members of the woodpecker clan is its habit of excavating tiny holes around woody vines and the trunks of trees and shrubs. When sap wells up in these small reservoirs, the sapsucker laps up the sweet liquid with a brush-like structure on the tip of its tongue. It will also eat the soft cambium surround the hole.

While yellow-bellied sapsuckers can be attracted to feeders stocked with suet and doughnuts, it has been my experience that they prefer grape jelly over all other foods.

Since the bird prefers to feed on the limbs and trunks of trees and shrubs, I recommend that you place a jelly feeder in such locations. A shallow (1 to 2 inches deep) plastic container wired to a tree serves as an ideal sapsucker feeder.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The yellow-rumped warbler, formerly known as the myrtle warbler, is a common winter resident throughout the state. However, the bird is particularly abundant along the coast. 

The yellow-rumped warbler is easily identified. It will be the only bird you will see in your yard that displays yellow patches on its sides and the base of its tail. 

While yellowrumps will come to feeders that offer wax myrtle berries collected from the wild, suet, peanut hearts and finely cracked nuts and corn, I must confess that I have never seen one dine at my feeders. However, they regularly drink and bathe at my bird bath.

With that in mind, if you want to attract this bird to your yard, offer them a dependable and clean source of water. Once the birds find your winter oasis, you will be amazed how often they visit, even on the coldest winter days.

Hermit Thrush

The hermit thrush is the only thrush you are likely to see in your yard during the winter. It is a common winter resident throughout the state.

The back and wings of this bird are dull to reddish brown. Dull, dark spots are scattered across the bird's white breast. Its tail is reddish brown. 

Here is another identification tip: The hermit thrush has a habit of slowly raising and lowering its tail.
Although the hermit thrush will eat a variety of food items such as suet, finely cracked corn, peanut hearts, pecan pieces, raisins and even white bread, it rarely visits feeders.

Ron Lee, past president of The Environmental Resources Network (TERN), seems to be able to attract hermit thrushes to his feeders more often than most. His secret is that he feeds the birds crumbled up pieces of corn bread.

Space has allowed me to discuss only five of the more unusual birds that can be attracted to feeders in the Peach State. If you have a hankering to see something new at your feeder, try adding a new entre to you feeder menu. Even if you are not successful in attracting new clientele to your bird cafe, the regular feathered diners will enjoy the change in fare. 

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact rick.lavender@dnr.ga.gov.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com. "Out My Backdoor” columns archive.