There are people in this world, people who spend lots of time preparing and fussing over their outfits and their hair. They walk, talk, and flaunt a certain way. Why do people do this? So that the rest of us can give them our attention, judge them, compare them, talk about them, etc. It's a time-hallowed tradition now done most notably and prodigiously at shopping malls and outside of movie theaters. Although their appearance is less in their control, birds have a propensity for these displays too, especially when potential mates are around. They want to be the loudest, the most magnificent, or the most established.
As our feeders and fields, along with the blogosphere, are flooded with those essential regional winter birds, it is only appropriate then, even necessary, to host a discussion exploring which of the iconic winter wanderers is the BEST winter bird. Not all of the birds hosted here have a full range across the nation, but they're all recognizable and form a good basis. While spending a week of my winter break in Pennsylvania, a state with great birding diversity, I was able to see these winter staples and weigh their characteristics with the cynical judgment that can only be honed over years of people-watching at awkward social scenes.
To be fair, there's a heavy eastern bias here, but also to be fair, the east coast hosts the traditional winter tropes more than we do in the west. So, White-crowned Sparrows, you won't make the list...
It seems fair to first address not only one of the most conspicuous winter birds, but one of the most well-known and loved throughout the country throughout the year. Also known as the Red Bandit and the Prayerful Passerine, ladies and gentlemen...The Northern Cardinal.
No winter is complete without at least one Christmas card showing one of these birds perched on a snowy branch, and no feeder is properly christened until the Cardinal has visited. Their stunning, rich red captivates the eyes and burns itself into the memory. With good reason, the Northern Cardinal has a reputation as one of the most beautiful birds in North America. However, they also suffer from over-exposure, as they have their brand bandied about on logos and decorations and greeting cards such that we're so saturated in Cardinals, they lose their luster sometimes. Even so, what a great bird.
Opposite the Cardinal in its red is the Eastern Bluebird in its vibrant blue. True enough, this bird is not as widespread as the Cardinal, and their counterpart Western Bluebirds do not have the same winter feel to them. But Eastern Bluebirds pose so nicely and often for their pictures in hallmark winter settings. Their rusty sides and rusty chin, along with the white belly, also makes for a more complex color palette, and there aren't many birds much cuter...
Though the Black-capped Chickadee is probably one such cutey. These gregarious, garrulous go-getters are maybe the only birds that can compete with the Cardinal's popularity and recognition even outside of the birder circles. Although they have handsome plumage, they must make up for the shortfall in color with their rambunctious behavior, which they do quite well.
In a lot of ways thought, the Chickadee suffers from the same over-saturation as the Cardinal. Namely, they're great birds, but choosing them as the BEST winter bird seems cheap, when their are other cool birds whose lower profile makes them more interesting.
Golden-crowned Kinglets benefit from being Kinglets, which is a great thing to be. Additionally and unlike their Ruby-crowned counterparts, they've always got some sort of crown on display, even if it's not the full monty. Overall, I guess there's not enough to really consider them for BEST winter bird, but I do enjoy seeing them and it wouldn't quite be the winter birding experience without them bouncing around, as if no one told them its cold outside.
Though only found in the eastern half of the U.S., and also found year round, The Carolina Wren still feels like a quintessential winter bird to me. Maybe it's because there are fewer other birds around and their high-power songs stand out all the clearer. Like the Golden-crowned Kinglet, it couldn't be BEST winter bird, but it resonates with me as another essential to any good day of winter birding.
Like the Carolina Wren, the Downy Woodpecker really comes to the fore in winter due in part to the absence of other birds in the area. They're dexterous, tough little buggers and are some of the few birds one will see on the suet feeders through January and February. Plus, this bird has nice winter coloration. But BEST winter bird? Probably not.
Until someone convinces me otherwise, I'm throwing my vote for BEST winter bird to the White-throated Sparrow. Not content to just be White-crowned, they also sport the white, Santa Claus winter beards and some of the yellowest lores you'll see in North America.
They descend on a fair portion of North America and in great numbers, but only for half of the year (give or take). As such, they're not over exposed, but they're not so overbearing as to be cheapened (at least, not for a visiting westerner like me). Plus, they're just Fabulous!
What do you think? Have I misrepresented all of these wintery birds? Am I missing some (absolutely!)? Who would you nominate for BEST winter bird?