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Inside the Outdoors: Feeder surprises - Some birds are unexpected winter visitors

Be on the lookout for these three infrequent and uncommon bird species - you just may see them.

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Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Minnesotans’ hardiness challenges the comprehension of many who live in less wintry places.

I have friends in these warmer climates who wonder how we can tolerate our long winters, with their extreme cold, treacherous driving conditions, slippery sidewalks, barren vegetation and high heating bills. Why we stay here and put up with these things clearly puzzles them!

There are a number of answers to their puzzlement, including activities that can only be pursued during a Minnesota-like winter. Things like ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, skijoring - you can actually train a dog to pull you on skis! - snowshoeing and certainly more.

Another thing that makes a Minnesota winter tolerable is our wildlife. The most dependable way to enjoy the creatures who share our winters is at our bird feeders. And it’s not just birds that come to dine on suet, sunflower seeds and cracked corn, but squirrels, rabbits and on occasion even deer and black bears.

Visitors to our feeders provide a splash of color that brightens our winters. Some, like cardinals, blue jays and grosbeaks, are very colorful. Others are more subtle in their plumage, but no less interesting and cheering.

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Some are common and very familiar to us, like the black-capped chickadee, the blue jay and cardinal, the white-breasted nuthatch and the less-appreciated “English sparrow.”

But during some winters we’re also treated to visits from unfamiliar songbirds, members of species that are more common beyond our state’s borders. Some are true nomads during the winter months, here today and gone tomorrow, and don’t accommodate us by lingering for long.

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Boreal Chickadee perching on a branch.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

One of these uncommon visitors is the boreal chickadee. It’s the Canadian cousin, you might say, of the black-capped chickadee found across all of Minnesota. Our black-cap is one of the most sociable of winter neighbors, even to the point that - with patience - they can sometimes be coaxed to come to your hand to take a sunflower seed or pieces of shelled corn.

But the boreal chickadee is both more secretive and a foreigner, living primarily in coniferous forests of the northern border country and the forested Canadian provinces. It takes its name from the boreal forests that grow at these far northern latitudes.

In Greek mythology, Boreas is the god of winter and the north wind, not to mention its legendary place in St. Paul Winter Carnival lore!

In its primary home in these far northern coniferous forests, the boreal chickadee spends much of its time secluded in interior branches, sheltered from the worst winter conditions. Its plumage is more colorful than the black, white and gray of our black-capped chickadee. It has the same black “bib” beneath its bill, the same gray wings, tail and nape of neck, and the same white breast.

But a broad swath of its flanks is chestnut brown, its cap is chocolate brown instead of black, with patches of the same chocolate tone on its shoulders. It’s a bird watcher’s good fortune that the boreal chickadee sometimes wanders southward in winter and reaches us, feeding on seeds and winter-immobilized insects, and at our feeders.

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A male Red Crossbill.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Another uncommon winter visitor is a bird - two subspecies, actually - that looks like it could benefit from a visit to an orthodontist! The red crossbill and white-winged crossbill have upper and lower mandibles that are not aligned, as we would expect of a bird’s bill. Instead their bills’ tips cross over one another.

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This unique adaptation distinguishes crossbills from most members of the finch family and allows them to more easily extract seeds from the cones of conifers like pine, spruce, fir and hemlock, the seeds of which they rely on almost entirely as a food source.

Especially when seed-bearing cones are in short supply over their primary range in northern boreal forests, crossbills sometimes move southward - called an “irruption” - to find food in greater abundance. These food sources may include ornamental evergreens in our yards, as well as forest trees and - of course - our bird feeders, too.

Both red and white-winged crossbills are primarily rose-to-cranberry in coloration, with grayish brown wings. The white-winged crossbill also has two distinctive white bars on each wing.

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Cedar waxwings in an ornamental fruit tree.
Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

A third infrequent winter visitor also appears as two closely-related varieties. It’s the waxwing, so named for the waxy-looking tips to a patch of feathers on each wing. Both cedar waxwing and Bohemian waxwing have distinctive feathered crests, like the cardinal.

The cedar waxwing and the slightly larger, robin-sized Bohemian waxwing move about in large bands, not in response to temperature or other climatic factors, but in search of edible wild or domesticated fruits.

At a former in-town residence we had two ornamental crabapple trees. If the waxwings graced us with a winter visit, our backyard would suddenly resemble a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Birds.” On every limb and branch, it seemed, a waxwing hung or perched - wings fluttering - arching its feathered neck to reach and pluck the dime-sized withered fruits.

The air was filled with their peculiar buzzing “tseee ... tseee” notes that are so different from the chirps, trills and warbles of other songbirds.

The smaller cedar waxwing is mostly tan, gray and yellow, with a bold black mask across its face and eyes. The Bohemian waxwing is more gray than its counterpart, especially in the breast where the cedar waxwing is more yellow, and also sports a black facial mask. Both have yellow and black-tipped tail feathers.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

The waxwings would gorge themselves until the supply of tiny crabapples on our trees was all but exhausted, then disappear as suddenly as they had arrived. There really are no other songbirds that are both so handsome and so enigmatic.

Maybe you’ll be blessed this winter by the appearance of one or more of these out-of-the-ordinary avian visitors. Or perhaps another unfamiliar species altogether. Have your bird guide - hard copy or online - at the ready!

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