General Topics

Winter Birds in Missouri

Bird Migration:

Source: Peterson (1963)

Birds are starkly different from other species: many of them can fly. This allows them to move relatively easily to different climates, in search of food and warmer temperatures.

Birds can fly hundreds of miles in a day, with speeds varying between 30 and 60 miles per hour. Scientists divide their routes into flyways, an idea comparable to a road trip on a highway. Flyways are an oversimplification though, because birds often switch which flyway they are on.

Day migrants fly during the day, and are often weather migrants, which means that they migrate when the weather changes. Instinct migrants migrate at a certain time that is not dependent on the weather. They often fly at night.

Evolutionarily, birds migrate because they live in warm climates but then spread out to find food. They return to the warmer climates when it gets cold. Biologically, birds migrate because their endocrine glands change before and after nesting season, which is when they migrate, and because of the increased light in the spring and decreased light in the fall.

Birds use celestial objects to find their way home. During the day, birds orient themselves according to the sun’s position. Gustav Kramer, a German scientist, did experiments in which he tricked birds into realigning themselves by changing how the light was reflected into their cage. During the night, birds orient themselves according to the position of the stars. E.F.G. Sauer showed that birds in a planetarium realigned themselves when he shifted the stars.

While the majority of North American birds migrate, some, like the willow ptarmigan, stay in one place and change their diet to match the available food. Some mountain birds practice altitudinal migration, living on the top of the mountain when it is warm and moving down into the valley when it is cold. While some North American birds migrate south of the equator in winter, others stop at the southern United States.

Many birds do not successfully complete their migrations because of the numerous challenges they face. Fog, storms, and wind can send birds far off course, because birds cannot predict the weather. Natural catastrophes are also dangerous. For example, in 1904 Lapland Longspurs got caught in a snowstorm between Minnesota and Iowa, and 750,000 bodies were found on frozen lakes. Man-made hazards also hinder migration: birds crash into ceilometers in airports, lighthouses and tall structures with lights, and television towers.

Researchers study the migration of birds using different techniques. Birds’ legs are banded so that their locations can be plotted during migration. This technique was invented by Johann Leonhard Frisch of Berlin, who tied red strings around the legs of birds to see if they would return. Now, the U.S. and Canada tag about 600,000 birds every year. To tag the birds, researchers catch them using a variety of traps and nets.

Birds that migrate to Missouri in the winter:

Source: Udvardy (1977)

Some of the birds that migrate to Missouri and the surrounding area are listed below, organized by the habitat that each species prefers.

Freshwater Marshes

Freshwater marshes are characterized by shallow lake or river water that has marshy vegetation growing in it. Cattails, reeds, bulrushes, and sedges grow in shallow water, and lily pads grow in deep water. Birds use these plants and the marsh organisms for food and shelter.

Canvasback (Aythya valisineria)

Ducks (Anatidae)

The Canvasback is a large, diving duck. Its bill is long and black, and its forehead is shallow and sloped. The male’s head is chestnut-red, its body is white, and its front and rear are black. The female’s head and breast are brown, and its sides are gray. The male coos while courting, but in general the Canvasback is silent. It lives in prairies near lakes, and in marshes that are next to forests. In general, the Canvasback is wary and stays in the center of flooded marshes and lakes. The female lays seven to nine eggs at a time. Their nests are in the vegetation near a marsh that provides a food source. Canvasbacks breed in western Canada, and they migrate south to the coasts and southern half of the United States in the winter.

Male Canvasback (Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Ducks (Anatidae)

The male mallard is colorful in the fall, winter, and breeding season. He has a green head, and white, chestnut, purple, and blue body parts. The female mallard has a dark colored crown and a mottled black body, as do males during the rest of the year. The male has a yellow and green bill, while the female has an orange and black bill. Both sexes have a distinctive, iridescent blue speculum bordered by white. Female mallards quack and male mallards rab-rab. Mallards live in marshes, river bends, and ditches. They lay eight to ten eggs, with their nest away from the water or in a tree. While female mallards incubate their eggs, the males molt. Mallards are the most common duck in the Northern Hemisphere. In winter they migrate from most parts of Canada, Alaska, and the northern regions of the United States to the southern regions of the United States and further south.

Male Mallard (Rob Curtis/VIREO)

Common Snipe (Wilson’s Snipe) (Capella gallinago)

Sandpipers (Scolopacidae)

The Common Snipe has a long bill, striped head, and mottled body. It is a shorebird and lives in inland marshes and bogs. When flying, the Common Snipe makes a zig-zag shape. It makes a zhak noise. When breeding, the tail feathers make noise, and when protecting its territory, it calls out in a series of short sounds. Four eggs are laid at a time, in a grassy depression near a marsh. To eat, the common snipe digs in the muddy marsh dirt to find small animals. The Common Snipe lives in the northern regions of the United States and most of Canada and Alaska. In the winter, it migrates to the southern regions of the United States and northern South America.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Owls (Strigidae)

The short-eared owl has small ears that are hard to see and close together. It is pale and has brown streaking, with light colored wing linings and face and yellow eyes. The short-eared owl makes a kyow sound. It lives in places with short vegetation: including marshes, tundra, taiga bogs, or forest clearings. The short-eared owl lays five to seven eggs at a time, in a depression hidden in weeds or tall grass. It lives throughout most of Canada and Alaska and the northern regions of the United States, and migrates to the rest of the United States in the winter. For food, the Short-eared Owl eats field mice and small rodents. When the owl feels threatened, it can make itself appear scary by stretching out its wings.

Short-eared Owl (Warren Greene/VIVEO)

Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers

Lakes, ponds, and rivers are the habitat for birds that use the open water to swim, find food, and dive. These birds burrow in the banks or build nests in the trees on the shore.

Common Merganser (Mergus Merganser)

Ducks (Anatidae)

The Common Merganser is large, the size of a Mallard. The male’s body is black and white, with a red bill. His head is green and black when breeding and brown when not breeding. The female’s body is gray, and she has a crested and rufous head and a white breast and throat. When breeding, the male makes a twanging noise and the female makes a karr noise. The Common Merganser lives in freshwater, in mountain and subarctic areas. The female lays six to twelve eggs at a time, in tree holes, rocks, or tree roots. It migrates to the central part of the United States to find fresh water that is not frozen. It dives into water and eats aquatic prey. The bill is designed to catch the prey, with its narrow shape and saw-like teeth.

Common Merganser (Rob Curtis/VIVEO)

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

Ducks (Anatidae)

The Common Goldeneye is a diving duck. The male has a black back and tail and a white body, with a green and black head and a white spot by the eye in the spring. The female and male (not in spring) are both gray and have brown heads and a white color, with a white patch on the wing. When courting, females make a quack noise and males make a jeee-ep noise. Common Goldeneyes live in lakes and bogs that are in coniferous forests. The female lays eight to fifteen eggs at a time in stumps or holes. The Common Goldeneye lives in Canada and migrates to the United States for the winter. They fly quickly in small flocks, or groups of birds.

Common Goldeneye (Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO)

Wet Tundra

Wet tundra is in the Arctic. Its upper layer of soil thaws in late spring, but the rest of the ground is frozen year-round. Boggy areas are above the soil, and mosquitos and other insects live in the shallow and warm water. Birds here eat the insects, but when the tundra freezes they have to migrate south to aquatic areas for food.

Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

Finches (Fringillidae)

The Lapland Longspur is the most common small bird in the tundra. The male is black, with a chestnut nape, white belly, and brown-streaked wings when breeding. The male is brown, with a striped head, vague black breast, and chestnut coloring at the nape in the winter. The female has a dark tail and white tail feathers on the outer sides. The Lapland Longspur has a long hind toenail. It runs or walks rather than hops. It makes three noises: during flight, see or serilee-aw; for alarm, peer; and for contact during flight, dir-it. The Lapland Longspur lives in wet tundra or meadows in circumpolar North America in the summer, and in fields, shores of lakes, and prairies in the central United States during the winter. It lays four to seven eggs in a nest lined with feathers.

Lapland Longspur (Doug Wechsler/VIREO)


Fields are farmed or previously farmed land. Vegetation and saplings quickly take over fields. Birds here shelter in trees, hedgerows, and weeds.

Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

Finches (Fringillidae)

The tree sparrow is brown with a white front, and a central breast spot that is dark. It has a mustache, chestnut cap, and eyeline, and its bill is dark on top and yellow on the bottom. The Tree Sparrow makes a tseet noise, and in the winter also makes a teedle-eet noise. It lives in brushy thickets and scrub in northern Canada, and when it migrates in winter to the northern regions of the United States, it lives in fields and alongside roads. It lays four to five eggs near the ground in a depression lined with feathers. The Tree Sparrow can live in subzero temperatures because of the calories that it gets from seeds. As long as the snow does not entirely cover the ground, the bird can survive.

Deciduous Woods

Deciduous woods have trees that lose their leaves in the winter. Often they are along river bottoms, and include trees such as willow and cottonwood. The variety of trees and plants make deciduous woods suitable for many species, including birds.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

Finches (Fringillidae)

The Fox Sparrow is large and chubby. It is a brown, red, or dark color, with a large spot of brown on its mid-breast and streaking underneath. The Fox Sparrow’s tail is rust colored and it has a heavy bill. Its song includes whistles and trills. The Fox Sparrow lives in thickets or the edges of woods. It lays four to five eggs, low to the ground or on the ground. The Fox Sparrow lives in the far northern and western parts of Canada, Alaska, and the West Coast of the United States, and it migrates to the Midwest and East Coast of the United States. It eats insects and seeds.

Fox Sparrow (Glenn Bartley/VIREO)

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

Finches (Fringeillidae)

The White-crowned Sparrow gets its name from its white crown, which is surrounded by dark stripes. It has a white belly, streaked pink or yellow wings, and gray neck, breast, and cheek. Young birds have a crown pattern that is brown and buff during their first winter. The White-crowned Sparrow’s call varies based on location. It makes the chink or pink noise, and normally has a whistle, and then a few short trills or whistles of varying pitches. The White-crowned Sparrow lives on the edges of forests or clearings, with cleared ground that it can forage on and shrubbery to nest in. It is also found in bogs, alpine streams, fields, parks, and gardens. The White-crowned Sparrow lays three to five eggs at a time in a nest close to or on the ground. It lives in the northern half of Canada, Alaska, and the West Coast of the United States, and migrates to the lower half of the United States and Mexico.

White-crowned Sparrow (Garth McElroy/VIREO)

Coniferous Forests

This belt of forest is also known as boreal forest or taiga. It consists of pine trees, including spruce, hemlock, pine, and tamarack, which do not lose their needles in the spring. The trees that make up coniferous forests vary depend on the forest’s geographic location.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata)

Wood Warblers (Parulidae)

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is named for the color of its cap, rump, and flanks. The male Yellow-rumped Warbler has a black breast when breeding. The female Yellow-rumped Warbler is brown and beige, with some streaking and yellow. The male looks like the female in fall and winter. The male makes a trilling noise. The Yellow-rumped Warbler lives in coniferous forests, that can have deciduous trees as well. It lays four to five eggs at a time in a conifer tree. This bird lives on the west coast of North America and the southern part of Canada in the summer and migrates to the southern and eastern regions of the United States in the winter.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Rob Curtis/VIREO)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Finches (Fringillidae)

The Dark-eyed Junco’s color varies depending on which region it is from. In the western population, the male’s hood is black and his mantle is chestnut. The female is less colorful. Dark-eyed Juncos make distinct sounds: a tchet trill to keep in contact with other flock members, and a different trill for flying. It lays three to six eggs in a nest on the ground. The Dark-eyed Junco lives on the edges of coniferous forests in most parts of central and southern Canada and Alaska, and when it migrates to the United States in winter, it lives in parks and near roadsides. The Dark-eyed Junco lives near the ground and eats seeds and fruit.

Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

Old World Warblers (Sylviidae)

The Golden-crowned Kinglet is one of the smallest bird species in North America. It has a small bill, an olive back and white body, and white wing bars. Its tail is notched and its eyebrows are white. The male’s crown is orange and yellow with a black frame and the female’s is yellow. Golden-crowned Kinglets make a see-see-see birdcall. It lives in dense and young conifer trees, and eats larvae and insects. It lays five to eleven eggs at a time, in an oblong nest. In the summer, it lives along the east and west coasts of the United States and southern Canada, and in the winter some migrate to the central United States.

Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Wrens (Troglodytidae)

The Winter Wren is a small bird. It has a dark red and brown body. It often flicks its tail, which is short and tilted up. The Winter Wren’s musical song is trilling and high-pitched, a trill, or double chimp-chimp. It lives in the underbrush of the coniferous forest, where it is quiet and shady. The Winter Wren lays four to seven eggs at a time, near or on the ground in a protected nest. Unlike all other species of wrens, who only live in North and South America, the Winter Wren lives in Canada, the British Isles, and northern Asia. It lives on the coasts of Canada and the United States, and in the winter goes south and further inland.

Winter Wren (Brian E. Small/VIREO)

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

Waxwings (Bombycillidae)

The body of the Cedar Waxwing is gray or brown, the belly and tail band are yellow, the mask and chin are black, and the undertail coverts are white. The Cedar Waxwing lives on the edges of forests, orchards, or city parks. In the summer, it is difficult to see a Cedar Waxwing, and the best way of knowing one is nearby is by its voice, a high-pitched see-e-e-e. In the winter, the birds fly in flocks and are much louder, making them much more noticeable. During this time, large flocks gather on fruiting trees, devouring fruit and swallowing berries whole (sometimes they may even get drunk from eating overripe berries). Ceder Waxwings also eat flowers, sap, and insects. The female lays three to six eggs at a time, in a loose nest in a tree. Cedar Waxwings breed in southern Canada and the northern regions of the United States, and spend their winters in the southern regions of the United States.

Cedar Waxwing (Glenn Bartley/VIREO)

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)

Finches (Fringillidae)

The Pine Siskin has streaking all over, with a gray and brown body on top and a buffy underside. Its bill is slender and its tail is notched. The female Pine Siskin looks similar to the male but is not as yellow. The Pine Siskin makes a shick-shick noise, a tseee noise, and a schhrreee noise. For habitat, the bird lives in coniferous and second-growth forests. It lays three to six eggs at a time, in a nest in a tree. It lives in southern Alaska and Canada and the western United States in the summer and migrates to Mexico and the rest of the United States for the winter. The Pine Siskin eats seeds, and is able to hang upside down while eating seeds out of pods.

Pine Siskin (Glenn Bartley/VIREO)

Upland Tundra

Upland tundra is a dry, Arctic habitat in northern and alpine areas. Vegetation growth is stunted, with small willow and birch trees and shrubs. The hills are barren and rocky.

Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)

Hawks (Accipitridae)

The Rough-legged Hawk is a large hawk. It has two different phases. In the common light phase, it is buffy, with streaking on the feathers. It has a black belly band and primary wing tips. In the uncommon dark phase, it has a dark head, underwing, tail band, and body, and white feathers. The Rough-legged Hawk squeals around its nest, but is otherwise mainly silent. The Rough-legged Hawk lays two to six eggs, in a nest on a cliff made of sticks and moss. It lives in upland tundra nests in the circumpolar region. In the winter, the Rough-legged Hawk migrates to northern and middle parts of the United States, and it lives in wide-open plains that have lookout posts. When hunting, the hawk attacks lemmings, ptarmigans, and other rodents and birds.

Rough-legged Hawk (Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO)

Research on Migration:

Climate change affects migration patterns in birds (Gordo 2007). Climate change has caused a shift in migration dates and duration and frequency of stopovers. Stopover habitats are vital to migration because birds have to refuel and rest. The amount of time that a bird spends at a stopover depends on the resources available. Climate change causes extreme weather, which can cause a bird to go off-route. It also changes the temperature, which birds use as a signal for when they should begin migration.

Migration patterns and the lives of birds are changing alongside the climate (Gordo 2007). In general, the spring season begins earlier and the fall season begins later. Departure dates are affected by the climate and weather; the availability of food depends on the weather and many birds migrate when their food supply dwindles. Food availability also affects molting, when the bird replaces its feathers. Birds molt before migration in the spring and the fall, and they need enough time to molt and breed without having the two overlap. There is enough time in the winter, but in the summer birds can be pressed for time and forced to overlap breeding with molting or to suppress molting. If the bird suppresses molting, the feathers are of lower quality which affects the flying and maneuvering abilities of the bird.

The structure of North American birds’ migration flyways change with the conditions of the atmosphere (La Sorte et al. 2014). The flyways change from the spring to the fall. La Sorte et al. (2014) found two flyways that moved west in the spring migration, an eastern and a western path. A central flyway converged with the eastern flyway, but was tighter in the fall. Even though the shifted spring eastern flyway was longer in terms of miles, the birds were able to fly faster because of the jet stream, which is affected by the climate. The western and central flyways were not significantly affected by the atmospheric conditions.

Weather, climate, and atmospheric conditions affect the migration of birds, and birds rely on migration for food, warmth, and survival. The work of Gordo (2007) and La Sorte et al. (2014) illustrate the importance of understanding how human influence affects climate and to know how to react in order to protect birds and other species.

Birds that Winter in Missouri Field Guide Card

pdf file to download


Gordo, Oscar (2007), “Why are bird migration dates shifting? A review of weather and climate effects on avian migratory phenology”, Climate Research, 35(1-2), 37-58.

La Sorte, F.A. and 9 others (2014), “The role of atmospheric conditions in the seasonal dynamics of North American migration flyways”, Journal of Biogeography, 41(9), 1685-1696.

Peterson, Roger Tory. The Birds. 1963: Time Inc., Life Nature Library, 1963. Print.

Udvardy, Miklos D. F. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Western Region. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Print.


All migration maps and photographs from the Audubon Guide to North American Birds. Maps originally adapted from Ken Kaufman (Lives of North American Birds, 1996). Photographs originally from VIREO, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s bird photograph collection.

“Guide to North American Birds.” Audubon. National Audubon Society. Web. 16 Dec. 2016. <>.


This page was written and created by Emily Rehmann.

Glossary of Bird Terms

Terms related to parts of a bird:

Crown: top of head

Auriculars (upper and lower mandible): beak or bill

Nape: back of neck

Mantle: upper back

Tarsus: legs

Parts of the Wing:

Speculum: a usually colorful patch on the secondary wing feathers

Scapulars: bend of wing, above shoulder

Wing Coverts: smaller feathers covering the bird’s shoulder

Primaries: feathers closest to the top of the wing

Secondaries: feathers behind the primaries

Tail feathers/Rectrices: long feathers at the outermost part of the wing

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