The Most Active Birds in Winter (Activity, Food & More)

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Bird activity can change with the seasons, which makes sense sine birds breed when conditions are optimal, while they will not breed (in general) when conditions are not favorable. You may wonder when bird activity is highest during winter.

Birds are most active in the early mornings and late afternoons in winter. This holds true for most birds, although you may find more flight activity among the raptors at midday when temperatures may be higher. 

Read more below about bird activity in winter and other seasons, including learning about some birds that are adapted to snowy conditions.

When are birds most active in winter?
When are birds most active in winter?

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When are birds most active in winter?

Peak activity for many species of birds is in the early morning. This is when birds first awaken and are hungry. The birds are more likely to be observed flying around or searching for food in trees, bushes, and on the ground. This is the case, especially for passerines, the perching birds.

On mild winter days, later in the day, as temperatures warm up, you are more likely to see raptors flying. This is because these birds often use thermals to help them stay aloft. Thermals rely on heated air.

This does not mean that all raptors will be grounded in cold weather. The thermals just help save the birds energy when flying. 

Bald Eagles are often seen flying in cold conditions, and are one of the few species of birds that incubates its eggs even during snowy conditions. Other raptors, like owls, may be easier to spot in winter in deciduous forests where trees lose their leaves.  

Extreme weather and bird activity

Bird activity will be reduced in severe weather. For example, in a blizzard and severe winter storm when wind is blowing, it is snowing, extremely cold, and difficult to see very far. This is when birds will take cover in bushes and trees, and will wait until conditions improve. 

Once conditions have improved again, birds that are in the area will again become active and go about searching for food and water.

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Snow-adapted birds

Many parts of the United States see snow in winter. Ponds and rivers may also freeze, making conditions more difficult and inhospitable for many species of birds. However, there are some bird species that can survive in very cold conditions. Some are even adapted to hunt and nest in the snow.

A bird that is well-adapted to the cold and snow is the Snowy Owl. This bird even has plumage colored white to match the color of snow. They do not stray too far into the United States unless conditions are very cold. However, these birds are highly nomadic and will fly great distances if there is a food shortage in their immediate area.

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is another species of bird that can survive well in cold conditions. In fact, this bird is so well-adapted to cold, that it will not do well in warmer areas.

The birds have white plumage and heavily feathered feet so that not only blend in with the snow, but they also don’t sink into the snow, and are kept nice and warm. The ptarmigans can easily walk around on top of snow, and if not moving, are very difficult to spot against the white, snowy landscape.

Snow Buntings are also adapted to snow, and have white coloring on the belly and head, and feathers on the lower part of the legs. This feathering provides added warmth against very cold conditions. These birds are also found in the bitterly cold conditions of the Arctic tundra. 

Bird activity and food in winter

Unlike in spring, bird activity doesn’t correlate much with invertebrate and insect activity. During the cold winter conditions, many insects will become dormant or die off.

American Robins rely more on foods like berries and other fruit at this time. Then, in spring, when insects and earthworms are more readily available, the robins switch back to preying on these animals. 

Waterfowl in the northernmost parts of North America may move south in winter. This is because dams and lakes freeze may during the winter, making food inaccessible. The birds instead move further south in search of open water and food.

Some ducks, like Mallards overwinter in places like New York City. These birds are able to use food from various sources and can survive at Harlem Lake, which is too large to freeze. 

Geese may arrive in large flocks to feed in fields near water in parts of the Midwest, and then they may continue moving south. The birds take advantage of food that they find along their migration route.

Advantages and disadvantages to bird watching in winter

Winter provides unique opportunities for bird watchers to see some birds like Snowy Owls and various sparrow species.

The sparrows often occur in winter in the more southern states, while Snowy Owls may be seen in the more northern states, although vagrants have shown up as far south as Texas in very cold winters. However, it may be physically harder to bird watch in winter than other times of the year.

In the most northern states of the USA, temperatures become subzero, making it bitterly cold, and even dangerous if you are outside for too long.

You should also take care when it comes to planning a driving trip that you have a winter-preparedness kit in your car in case of a break down. Driving is also treacherous in icy and snowy conditions when roads become slippery.

Keep a close eye on the weather conditions and avoid travel when a blizzard or severe winter storm is expected. 


Bird activity is maximal early in the morning when birds first awaken. This is when they are hungry and start looking for food. Raptors may be more active when it warms up more as it is easier for them to fly during those times.

Winter activity of birds will decrease if conditions become extreme, such as a blizzard or severe winter storm occurs in the area. 

TIP: Bird feeders and baths are great for attracting birds to your backyard. But what about bird houses? They will help you not only track but also keep them in your yard! Check out my picks on different bird houses below (Amazon links):
Cedar Viewing House
Wood Bird House with Pole
Hanging Bird House

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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