“Why don’t you work somewhere exotic like the Amazon?” This is a question I’ve received that’s been mentioned in at least one of my previous blogs. The 2020 winter bird count once again proved why Ohio is a perfect place for any self-respecting naturalist, or general person who likes cool animals, to search for wildlife.

If I were to say I found a type of bird that has skunk stripes on the top of its head, two big yellow eyebrows and a large white spot on its neck, Ohio would be last on the list of places you would think I found it. You also probably would not guess it’s a species of sparrow, a bird that’s usually thought of as a bit brown and boring. In Ohio, we have song, chipping, white-crowned, swamp and many more different species of sparrow, but it was the white-throated sparrow that was out today.

A white-throated sparrow hides among skinny tree branches.
White-throated sparrows winter in Ohio.

These little birds fly down to America from Canada during the winter, which is a perfect time for looking at birds in the wild. The bare trees make it harder for small songbirds, looking for the traces of berries and seeds left from fall, to hide. The trails are also less populated, which makes it easier to listen to our feathery friends.

A dark-eyed junco sits among the branches of a pine tree.
Dark-eyed juncos may be a commonly found bird, but they can remarkably adapt to various habitats.

White-throated sparrows are far from the only amazing birds you can see in Ohio during the winter. We have gorgeous cedar waxwings, impressive birds of prey such as red-tailed hawks and even eagles. What also goes unnoticed is how many of the common birds are special in their own way.

A bright red male northern cardinal sits among bare tree branches in winter.
Northern cardinal

On my hike today, I mentioned walking through the forest is similar to looking at a gray painting. The more you notice and learn about the forest, the more the colors of the painting reveal themselves. One thing to take notice of is how beautiful our common birds are. A professor of mine once told a story of how he went to a zoo in China, and they had cardinals on display. At first thought, this may seem odd, but if you pay attention to their contrasting black and red markings and piercing laser-like call, you can understand how truly remarkable these common birds are.

A northern mockingbird sits in a small tree.
Northern mockingbird

You may see the common robin, blue jay, northern mockingbird and chickadee on your hike, but do you know their calls? How they migrate? What food they’re looking for? It’s completely fine to not now these things – I myself don’t know the ecology of all the birds around me. But as I said previously, knowing a bit more about these birds than what they look like makes the forest a little more colorful, which ironically right now is one of the best times to add to your palette, when the forest at first glance couldn’t look more gray.

Should you make searching for birds a holiday tradition? That’s up to you. I know personally the lights and colors at night bring cheer to an otherwise dreary season. I don’t see why admiring and revealing the colors of the forest wouldn’t bring the same cheer in the day.

Tom Hughes
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods