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Birding and bird conservation

Wisconsin is home to over 300 species of birds and has thousands of people who enjoy birds. Explore the links below for information on birds, bird identification, birding locations and how to get involved in bird conservation efforts.

Birding report

Birding Report As Of January 15, 2021

Great Gray Owl
At least eight great gray owls have been documented in Wisconsin since November. Distinguish this rare species from the commonly-found barred owl by its much larger size, yellow eyes, silvery-gray plumage, and bolder white bow-tie below the beak. Photo by Thomas Nicholls.

The year's biggest birding news so far is mild, dry weather allowing some species to linger much longer or in higher numbers than usual. Examples include horned larks, American pipits, eastern and western meadowlarks, red-winged and rusty blackbirds, brown thrashers, eastern towhees, hermit thrushes, northern flickers, winter wrens, gray catbirds, and especially sparrows, including song, savannah, swamp, white-throated, white-crowned, and even Lincoln's and Harris's sparrows. Warblers in Wisconsin in January? Yes! Yellow-rumped, pine, and Cape May warblers are a few of those reported this week. Other remarkable finds for this time of year include a barn swallow in Dane, indigo bunting in Shawano, Baltimore oriole in Marathon, and rose-breasted grosbeak in Ashland.

Carolina wrens are showing well at feeders in the southern half of the state, as they typically do in mild winters, and American robins are overwintering in many areas where fruits and/or wet seepages are available. Waterfowl are also benefitting from more-than-average open water, including large numbers of Canada geese, some tundra swans in the south, trumpeter swans statewide, and various waterfowl. Common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, and mallards dominate but wood ducks are more prevalent than usual and just about any species could be found. 

Winter finches are widespread in generally small numbers. Evening and pine grosbeaks are most common up north, while redpolls, siskins, white-winged crossbills, purple finches, and American goldfinches are being found statewide. Beware of salmonella at backyard feeders, which most often affects small finches and typically shows in lethargic, "fluffed up" birds not moving with their flock. Learn how to help.

At least 8 great gray owls have been documented in Wisconsin since November, our highest state total of this boreal species since the mid-2000s. Barred owls are being seen more in daylight, which is often the case as winter progresses, and great horned owl hooting activity is near peak as pairs get ready to nest in the month ahead, especially in the south. Snowy owls are around in small numbers.

Also benefiting from the mild conditions, bald eagles are more widespread across the landscape. Don't miss the kickoff of this year's Bald Eagle Watching Days on January 16 . Programming this year is entirely virtual and runs for four Saturdays in January and February, including both pre-recorded and live-streamed events.   

Some of the other rarities spotted this month include a great showing of spotted towhees in multiple southeast Wisconsin counties, as well as Door and Price. A Sprague's pipit in Ozaukee on January 1 was Wisconsin's first ever of this rare western species. Varied thrushes were reported from Waukesha and Marathon. A harlequin duck in Ozaukee and Eurasian tree sparrows in Dane and Green were also of note. Report your finds of rare and common birds alike at Good birding!  

– Ryan Brady, DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program biologist

Find Birds

Explore the information below to learn more about great birding places in Wisconsin.

Report A Bird

Amateur birders have always been leaders in the field of citizen science. The links below provide a number of web-based tools that allow you to report and track your daily bird sightings. These data are used by DNR and conservation partners across the hemisphere to monitor migratory bird populations.

Bird ID And Info

The links below provide useful tips in identifying birds as well as information on their biology, status and conservation in Wisconsin.

Create Habitat

  • Establish native plants for birds to use as feeding, resting and nesting sites. For information on what to plant and Wisconsin native plant nurseries, see DNR's Plant native plants web page.
  • Read how Wisconsinites are taking steps to help birds in this special section of the Fall 2020 Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.
  • Ten great native plants, trees and shrubs to plant for birds
  • Provide more food for birds and maintain a healthier natural environment by removing plants not native to your area.
  • Provide fresh water for birds. A frog pond, water garden, fountain or even a shallow, regularly cleaned dish of water will get lots of bird use, especially if the water is dripping, moving, or otherwise making sound.
  • Maintain bird feeders in your yard, placed at least 30 feet from windows and near the natural protection of trees and shrubs; fruit, suet, and meal worms can supplement traditional seed such as black sunflower and niger seed.
  • Build a brush pile for shelter from predators and weather.
  • Add nest boxes for species like bluebirds or chickadees that nest and roost in cavities.
  • Prevent collisions with window glass by using non-reflective window coatings, window screens, awnings, flash tape, paracord or bird netting. Find DIY ideas here.
  • Keep cats indoors or confined to an outdoor enclosure to help reduce the hundreds of millions of birds killed by cats in the U.S. each year.
  • Limit or avoid pesticide use on your property. Pesticides harm birds directly through exposure/contact and indirectly by reducing the insect populations they need to survive. Birds are natural pesticides.

How To Help

See the links below for ways to get involved in birding and bird conservation efforts around the state.

Birdfeeder Tips

Ten Tips For Winter Bird Feeding

Winter is a great time to feed the birds, as higher energy demands and fewer natural foods give us the opportunity to bring some species closer to home.

  1. The single best seed to provide is black oil sunflower, which has high fat content and attracts the most species.
  2. Also offer nyjer seed for finches, white millet for sparrows, doves and other ground-feeding species both suet and peanut chunks for woodpeckers, chickadees nuthatches.
  3. Avoid generic seed mixes as these tend to have more waste and attract less desired bird and mammal species.
  4. Deter squirrels with cone- or dome-shaped baffles above hanging feeders or below pole-mounted feeders.
  5. Place feeders closer than 3 feet or farther than 30 feet from your home to avoid the deadliest window collision zone.
  6. Minimize disease by cleaning your feeders at least once every two weeks using soapy water and a 10% bleach solution.
  7. Provide cover such as brush piles or dense shrubs for roosting and escape from predators.
  8. Offer water to attract a wider variety of species, using a heating element when temperatures dip below freezing.
  9. "Birdscape" your property with native plants such as fruit-bearing shrubs and evergreen trees.
  10. Contribute to bird science and management by reporting birds you see at your feeder. The Great Backyard Bird Count [exit DNR] every February is an easy, fun way to get started: for at least 15 minutes on one or more days you simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. Project Feederwatch [exit DNR] spans the entire winter.