Getting to Know Neighborhood Birds During a Winter Storm

A Texas winter storm was a great reminder of the variety of avian life that awaits you if you just take a look outside.
A bright red male Northern Cardinal perches on a branch, leaning forward. Brown branches are blurred in the background.

I’m a neighborhood birder at heart. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I also love waking up before dawn to drive hours to a birding hotspot so I can add a new bird to my life list. But there’s just something about looking outside my window and spotting a Northern Cardinal perched on a branch. Neighborhood birds are also what drew me into the world of birding and conservation, which led me to Audubon—so I owe them a lot.

But every so often I sometimes forget to roll up my blinds and peek outside, and the world outside my window gets replaced with screens. Just as that started to happen to me again, my hometown and other parts of Texas were preparing for a winter storm—one that would close down schools and many businesses for most of the week. And I decided it might be best to spend this time getting reacquainted with my neighborhood birds.

So while everyone was stocking up on groceries and supplies, I made sure to grab a bag of Audubon bird seed. I typically let my native plants and other fauna do the work in providing food for birds, but with this unusually cold weather, I figured they’d need all the help they could get. I then cleaned up my Audubon bird feeder—hoping that its squirrel barrier would do the trick to let the birds feed—and set it out for the birds. The next three days truly reminded me of the variety of avian life that awaits you if you just take a look outside.

Day 1 — January 31

I woke up to the sound of thunder and sleet pelting my home and immediately peeked out my window. Today I knew I would focus on seeing and hearing every nearby bird I could find. Six pairs of Northern Cardinals immediately caught my eye—the bright red males stood out against the light dusting of snow and sleet, while the females put on their own colorful show. A few of them took turns eating from the feeder—others flitted from tree to tree.

Then came the Dark-eyed Juncos. Five of them scratched at the ground, barely keeping still. One of them appeared to lack a tail, but further inspection revealed its tail was completely white, blending in with the snow. This leucistic bird was endearing, to say the least.

A Dark-eyed Junco white a white tail sits on a fence post lightly covered in snow. Blurred tree branches frame the foreground.

I headed outside to take it all in. Human activity was down to a lull—few cars were on the road and people weren’t walking around because of the icy conditions. But the birds, they made their presence known. American Crows gathered and cawed at squirrels running back and forth. A few American Robins called and landed on tree branches above me. Nature had truly taken over.

Lunchtime came around, and I decided to spend some time listening and searching for birds beyond my backyard. A flock of Rock Pigeons flew in the distance, and I heard a melodic tune that I knew could only belong to Eastern Bluebirds—those flew by, too. I used my binoculars to spot a lone Blue Jay perched on a tree far from my own neighborhood. I’d forgotten how many birds I could encounter from afar without having to leave my house.

An American Robin perches on a tree branch surrounded by other branches against a white background.

Day 2 — February 1

More sleet, more snow, and a bout of freezing rain—the weather was getting bleaker as the week progressed. That morning I noticed that the birds I had encountered yesterday were now well aware of my feeding station, so I decided that I would pay close attention to their behavior that day.

Feeding was the easiest to observe. I first noticed that a Red-bellied Woodpecker landed on my tree before it began hammering away. Then it landed on my bird feeder, trying to find the best way to grab a seed while a Downy Woodpecker waited its turn. Suddenly, a lone American Goldfinch flew in, claimed a perch on the feeder, and sat there eating for minutes on end. I turned my attention to the ground birds. They were mostly juncos, but a small Orange-crowned Warbler joined them, weaving in and out from my small shrubs—too fast for me to capture its photo. A White-winged Dove quietly picked up fallen seeds from the feeder.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker clings to a bird feeder. The background shows a blurred fence with snow covering it.

Then came the fights—a Northern Mockingbird won the prize for the most fights picked. It chased away the cardinals at almost every chance it had. Even a couple of House Finches fought each other and the goldfinch over a favored perch, despite there being one for each of them. At this point, I was fully engaged with the drama. I cracked my window open and braved the blast of cold air just so I could get a better look. While these fights ensued, a flock of Cedar Waxwings alighted on branches and took the time to preen themselves. Oftentimes I find myself quickly looking at a bird, then moving on to find the next one, even when watching my neighborhood birds, so I enjoyed taking the time to observe their behaviors.

(Left) A Cedar Waxwing preens its wing while perching on a branch. (Right) A Cedar Waxwing perches high up on a branch coated with a thin layer of ice.

Day 3 — February 2

The end of this treacherous weather was in sight—but first, we had to endure one more round of freezing rain, leaving trees coated with a layer of ice as long icicles hung from houses, cars, and everything in between. Once again, the birds were at their usual places so that day, I tried to distinguish the regular visitors.

First was that leucistic Dark-eyed Junco. It visited my backyard every day, mingling with the others. The sole American Goldfinch was also a regular, switching between eating food at my feeder to perching on nearby branches. The two House Finches that had visited for the last few days were joined by another pair. And the ever-persistent Downy Woodpecker kept waiting its turn for a chance to eat from the feeder.

(Left) An American Goldfinch perches on a branch. (Right) A Downy Woodpecker faces forward while perching on a branch.
The Northern Mockingbird continued his reign of terror over the cardinals and even the White-winged Doves that tried to keep to themselves. A flock of European Starlings that had gathered the day before returned to pick up berries that had fallen on the grass. I even started to be able to predict when certain species would arrive. Most of the birds started gathering early in the morning, but the Cedar Waxwings flocked around lunchtime. It was exciting to be able to learn their habits from yesterday and tell, for the most part, which birds revisited my yard—something I hoped to bring with me even after the ice melted.
(Left) A European Starling lifts one foot up as it walks on the grass covered with snow and fallen berries. (Right) A Northern Mockingbird clings to a branch peering at the left side of the frame as branches covered with berries surround it.

My decision to reconnect with my neighborhood birds came just at the right time. While being stuck indoors—worried about ice, frozen pipes, and potential power failures—the birds, as always, provided comfort for me. Plus, with the Great Backyard Bird Count being just around the corner, I now know what birds to look for that weekend, so I can easily spend just 15 minutes surveying all of the regular avian visitors that I see or hear.

What’s great about these birds is that most of them, or their close relatives, can be spotted in neighborhoods throughout the United States during this time of year. I invite you to take a peek outside your home or apartment and see what birds you can encounter!