As winter moves along, the snowbirds arrival at feeders defines the season. Missourians can count on seeing dapper little birds in gray flannel jackets around their feeders.
They bounce around like balls of wind-blown fluff, gleaning seeds that other birds drop. Sticklers for ornithological correctness call them dark-eyed juncos, but to most people they are called snowbirds.
Snowbirds arrive in the Ozarks as early as October and they can be found scratching for seeds in thickets where they blend into the background. But casual observers are more likely to notice them when the year's first snowfall renders their slate-gray upper plumage most visible.
Snowbirds are even easy to recognize in the air. When they take flight, they flash bright white tail feathers that frame a dark center. There are three geographic races of dark eyed juncos. The most common one in the Ozarks are the ones that have black hoods, brown backs and pinkish sides.
Snowbirds are tolerant of human activity and are frequent visitors to home bird feeders. They are not picky eaters. They prefer sunflower seeds, but will also take cracked corn, millet or safflower seeds. They prefer to hunt for seeds on the ground, so they usually are seen foraging beneath feeders rather than perching on them. This is a fortuitous habit, since it avoids competition with cardinals, titmice, blue jays and other birds that prefer to sit at feeders.
It also helps gardeners, since snowbirds clean up weed seeds while foraging for bird seed.
Snowbirds prefer to scratch for food amid brushy cover, which provides protection from hawks and marauding cats. Placing feeders over shrubs or in flower beds where dry plants are allowed to stand throughout the winter creates perfect snowbird habitat. Discarded Christmas trees also make excellent cover.
Snowbirds spend their summers raising broods from central Michigan to the boreal forests of Labrador. Tens of thousands spend their winter in Missouri. Sometime around March or April they head back north.
During the winter, Missouri hosts more hawks and owls than in the summer and adds excitement to winter bird watching. Birds fly south for the winter, right? So why does it seem like there is a hawk on every fencepost along Missouri roads in the winter?
The answer lies in Missouri's central location. Many birds of prey fly south, but those that begin their migration in the northern states often find our state is far enough south to suit their needs for a winter bird watching.
I remember counting hawks on fences and telephone poles while driving from Nevada to Kansas City one winter day. In a 45-mile stretch of highway, I counted 28 hawks.
When you add those birds to the ones that live here year round, it amounts to a tremendous hawk population.
Nearly three-quarters of these birds are red-tailed hawks, the most common birds of prey in the state year round. They are distinguished by their broad wings and large size with wingspan up to five feet. The rusty-red color of the tail can be difficult to see unless it is lit from behind. The red tail hawks are most common in open country where they prey on rabbits, mice and rats.
Whereas red-tailed hawks prefer open country, Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks are creatures of the forest. These hawks have short wings and long tails that aid in quick maneuvering among tree branches. These hawks prey primarily on smaller birds.
Although we most often see birds of prey during the day, there is another group of raptors that are active almost exclusively at night. Owls may be frequent visitors to a neighborhood without ever being noticed.
Our most common nocturnal bird of prey, summer and winter, is the great horned owl, which may reach 25 inches long. The most distinguishing feature is its namesake "horns" which are actually large tufts of feathers on top of the head.
These owls are most likely to be seen around the edges of fields and woodlands where their soft, muffled calls of five to seven hoots mark their passage. They are fearsome predators, attacking such formidable prey as skunks without hesitation.
Our smallest nocturnal raptor is the saw whet owl, so named for the similarity of its voice to the sound of a musical saw. These small visitors to Missouri are rare.
Other owls in the state include the short-eared, barred and the most common, the screech owl, which has ear tufts like the great horned owls.
Winter months, without leaves on trees, make it easier to spot all varieties of birds, making the sighting of our feathered friends all the more enjoyable this time of year. Yet another reason to get outdoors and enjoy nature regardless of the temperature.
White, a Stockton resident, has a versatile background in sports, both as a journalist and participant. His column appears weekly.