Saturday, November 9, 2019

Common backyard birds in Montana (lists, photos, ID)

I've put this resource together for you to answer the question: What birds are in my backyard in Montana? This article tells you what birds you can expect in your backyard and when they are most common. I also provide a photo and description section to help you with Montana bird identification of the most common birds native to Montana backyards.

The most common backyard birds throughout the year in the state of Montana are these:
  1. American Robin (38% frequency)
  2. Black-capped Chickadee (30%)
  3. Northern Flicker (29%)
  4. European Starling (25%)
  5. House Finch (21%)
These birds occur on more than 20% of eBird checklists for the state.


In this article
Lists of the most common backyard birds in Montana
Photos and ID of the most common backyard birds in Montana
Other birds you might see from your backyard in Montana
Comparison of the most common backyard birds in Billings, Montana
Beyond your backyard


This page lists the most common backyard birds as determined by actual bird sightings reported to the citizen science birding program, eBird. These birds are ranked according to frequency--the percentage of all bird checklists on which a species occurs. Below I list common backyard birds in winter and summer.

Photos and identification are next. I tell a little bit about each species and how you might attract them to your yard.

Farther below I've also added a list of other common birds not typically found in backyards.

I conclude with a list comparing the birds of Billings with the birds of the state as a whole.



List of the most common feeder birds and backyard birds in Montana


The top list on this page is the frequency of birds throughout the year. Many birds are migratory or otherwise vary in abundance between seasons. So the next two lists are the common birds ranked in winter and then in summer.

The most common backyard birds in Montana in winter (December to February) are these:
Black-capped Chickadee (40% frequency)
Northern Flicker (29%)
House Finch (26%)
House Sparrow (25%)

The most common backyard birds in Montana in summer (June to July) are these:
American Robin (56% frequency)
Mourning Dove (26%)
Northern Flicker (25%)
Brown-headed Cowbird (24%)
European Starling (22%)
Cedar Waxwing (22%)
Chipping Sparrow (21%)
Eastern Kingbird (20%)
Pine Siskin (21%)
Western Wood-Pewee (21%)
Black-capped Chickadee (20%)

How do birds differ between winter and summer?

Black-capped Chickadees are more common in winter.

American Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, Western Wood-Pewees are more common in summer.



Photos and ID of the most common backyard birds in Montana


Photo of American Robin
American Robin
Photo by Greg Gillson

1. American Robin (38% frequency)

Turdus migratorius
This familiar bird is a resident in the northern half of the United States and a winter visitor in the southern half.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. Size: 10 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. About the same size as a Blue Jay or one of the Scrub-Jays. Larger than Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than a Mourning Dove. Shape: Very plump with a fairly long tail. Bill: Straight and fairly slender, curved at the tip. Color: Gray-brown upperparts, rusty orange breast.

Habitat, range & behavior: Open woodlands, farmlands, urban parks and lawns. Migratory, breeds north across Alaska and Canada. Resident in most of the United States (lower 48). Winters in the United States, Mexico, to central America. Hops on your lawn turning head this way and that looking for food. Their caroling song is one of the early signs of spring in the north.

Food and feeder preference: Worms and other invertebrates in the lawn. May eat fruit from a tray feeder or the ground. Eat small berries from trees and bushes.

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee on bird bath
Black-capped Chickadee
Photo by Greg Gillson

2. Black-capped Chickadee (30%)

Poecile atricapillus
This is a common backyard bird in the northern half of the United States.

Identification: Size: Chickadees are small birds, the same general size as an American Goldfinch. Shape: Round body, big round head, long tail with rounded tip. Bill: Short, straight, stout. Color: Gray above, buffy below. Black cap and bib with white lower face. White edges on wing feathers.

Habitat, range & behavior: Deciduous and mixed forests. They range from the northern half of the United States, southern half of Canada, and most of Alaska. Small flocks flit actively from tree to tree acrobatically gleaning insects from twig tips. In winter chickadees make up the core of mixed-species flocks also containing nuthatches, kinglets, creepers, woodpeckers and others.

Food and feeder preference: Seeds, insects, berries. They eat at tube, hopper and tray feeders. They love black oil sunflower seeds and suet.

You may like my in-depth article on attracting Black-capped Chickadees.

Photo of Northern Flicker on a branch
Northern Flicker
Photo by Greg Gillson

3. Northern Flicker (29%)

Colaptes auratus
Of all the bird identification questions I get asked, this common larger backyard bird is the bird most people ask about. It doesn't occur to those unfamiliar with it that this could be a woodpecker.

Identification: Size: About the size of a Mourning Dove. Larger than a robin. Shape: Stocky with short legs, short tail, big head. Bill: As long as head, thin, slightly curved. Color: Back is brown with black bars. Under parts pinkish with black spots. Undersides of black wing and tail feathers are bright salmon red (West) or yellow (East). Head gray (West) or brown (East) and males with red (West) or black (East) whisker marks and nape marks (East). Black crescent across chest. White rump seen in flight.

Habitat, range & behavior: Found in woodland edges and forests. Year-round resident from extreme southern Canada, across all of the lower-48 states and in the mountains of Mexico and Middle America. In summer breeds northward well into Canada and Alaska. Frequently noted hopping on ground pecking in the ground for insects. In late spring, males proclaim their territory by rapid pounding on a hollow tree branch, though the ringing of metal downspouts at dawn is louder and carries much farther, to the exasperation of anyone trying to sleep inside!

Food and feeder preference: Ants and beetles are their primary foods. Will eat black oil sunflower seeds and are attracted to suet.

Photo of European Starling
European Starling
Photo by Greg Gillson

4. European Starling (25%)

Sturnus vulgaris
Introduced to North America in the late 1800's, they crossed the continent, often to the detriment of native cavity-nesting birds. The prime example of an invasive species.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. Size: 8-1/2 inches from bill tip to tail tip. About the size of a Red-winged Blackbird. Smaller than an American Robin. Larger than a White-crowned Sparrow or Spotted/Eastern towhee. Shape: Stocky with large head, short square-ended tail. Longer legs. Bill: As long as head. Sharp pointed. Yellow in spring, otherwise dark. Color: They are grayish brown much of the year, with glossy iridescence and white spotting during the spring.

Habitat, range & behavior: Lowland birds that need trees large enough for nest cavities but plenty of open area for feeding. They are most abundant in urban and suburban areas where they find food and artificial nest cavities. Resident from coast-to-coast from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In summer north across Canada and Alaska. Native range is Europe to Pakistan, north Africa. Often viewed as a pest, starlings often bully other backyard birds, taking over bird feeders, and stealing nest cavities from smaller native birds. In winter they can form into flocks of ten's of thousands.

Food and feeder preference: Primarily insects when available, often feeding on the ground. Discourage them from your backyard hopper and tray feeders by never feeding birds table scraps (including bread or meat). They have weak feet and do not perch well on tube feeders. A cage mesh around smaller hopper feeders may keep them out.

Photo of a House Finch in a bird bath
House Finch in bird bath
Photo by Greg Gillson

5. House Finch (21%)

Haemorhous mexicanus
Originally a bird of the West, now found across most of the US. There are other red finches, but these are the ones most likely in residential areas.

Identification: This is a key species for comparing with an unknown bird. Size: About 6 inches from bill tip to tail tip. Larger than goldfinches and chickadees. Smaller than a White-crowned Sparrows or Spotted/Eastern towhees. Shape: Medium build with a medium-long notched tail. Round head. Bill: Short, conical. Color: Brown and gray above with streaks on the sides of the pale underparts. Males with red (sometimes orange or rarely yellow) crown, chest, rump.

Habitat, range & behavior: You'll find small flocks on wires, in short tree tops and in bushes. Originally deserts and grasslands. Rural areas and towns are where they're now most common. Formerly found in the western United States and Mexico. Then introduced into the northeastern United States, but now found in nearly all of the lower-48 states and extreme southern Canada. Rare in plains states (Dakotas to Texas) and southern Florida. House Finches are not territorial, but males sing throughout the year--a lively, wiry song ending in a couple of buzzy notes.

Food and feeder preference: They love sunflower seeds and tube feeders. May eat from thistle socks.

You may like my in-depth article on attracting House Finches.



Other common birds you might see from your backyard in Montana


The following lists contain additional common birds you might see flying over your yard or in a nearby neighborhood. There are also several less common backyard birds in these lists that don't appear in the lists above.

Watch for these additional common Montana birds in winter (December to February):
Black-billed Magpie (47% frequency)
Common Raven (31%)
Mallard (24%)
Canada Goose (23%)
Bald Eagle (21%)

Watch for these additional common Montana birds in summer (June to July):
Yellow Warbler (33% frequency)
Red-winged Blackbird (31%)
Tree Swallow (29%)
Black-billed Magpie (24%)
Western Meadowlark (24%)
Common Raven (20%)
Mallard (20%)

Watch for these additional common Montana birds in spring (April to May):
Red-winged Blackbird (43% frequency)
Mallard (41%)
Canada Goose (40%)
Black-billed Magpie (34%)
Tree Swallow (30%)
Western Meadowlark (28%)
Common Raven (25%)
Killdeer (22%)
Red-tailed Hawk (20%)
Song Sparrow (20%)



Comparison of the most common backyard birds in Billings, Montana


Photo of mating pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves
Eurasian Collared-Doves are common backyard birds in Billings
Photo by Greg Gillson
The following list uses eBird data to compare the birds of Billings with the birds of the state as a whole. Billings is in Yellowstone County. I will use the data for Yellowstone County to represent the birds in the Billings area.

Here are the most common backyard birds throughout the year in Billings.
American Robin (49% frequency)
Black-capped Chickadee (47%)
European Starling (46%)
House Finch (41%)
Northern Flicker (35%)
Eurasian Collared-Dove (33%)
House Sparrow (30%)
Mourning Dove (30%)
Rock Pigeon (24%)
American Crow (22%)
Downy Woodpecker (21%)

As expected in a large state with few cities, American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, European Starlings, House Finches, Eurasian Collard-Doves, House Sparrows, Mourning Doves are more common in Billings than in the state as a whole.



Beyond your backyard


To create this page on the backyard birds in Montana I used some of the advanced features of eBird.

You can learn more about what birds are in your own backyard using some easy and helpful features of eBird. Rare birds. Common birds. Winter birds, spring birds, summer birds, and fall birds. In fact, you can determine the abundance of all birds likely in your area for every week of the year! You can also see photos of the birds from your own area.

eBird also has numerous photos and voice recordings of the birds. Thus, you can see pictures of all the variation in each species. And you can listen to recordings of bird songs and calls.

Not all birds can be found in backyards. You may find that you wish to see birds in other places. If so, you'll want to check this out.

First, I'm sending you to eBird (www.ebird.org). Please don't forget me! Bookmark this page to come back.

Explore Regions for birds in your own county


From the eBird home page, select the tab for Explore (https://ebird.org/explore). The Explore page offers several options. Please use the Explore Regions form for now. Start entering your county name into the form. Select your county and state from the drop-down list.

Now your County page pops up.

There are 56 counties in Montana. There are bird lists for each county. The county with the most birds recorded is Phillips County with 319 species. The county with the least birds recorded is Treasure County with 153 species.

From this County page there are 3 selections that I want to share with you. They are Printable Checklist, Illustrated Checklist, and Hotspots.

1. Printable Checklist


The Printable Checklist is exactly what it sounds like. It is a basic bird checklist of all birds with eBird records in the county, state, or country you choose. It is a professional looking checklist, too. You can print it double-sided on card stock for a quite nice and durable bird checklist.

Bird checklists are useful to keep track of birds in your backyard as you identify them. Or, you may want to print a new list for each time you take a bird watching outing.

But this type of list doesn't help you figure out if a bird in your backyard is common or rare. For that, you need the next type of checklist.

2. Bar Charts


Bar charts combine the species list with abundance over time. The thickness of the line (bar) indicates how frequently a bird is seen. A thicker bar indicates a common bird. A thin line indicates a rare bird. No bars are shown when the birds are absent or not recorded.

In the case of the eBird bar charts, there is a space for every week of the year. There is room for 52 lines, or bars, in each chart. This way, you can tell, week by week, how common birds are in your state, even in each county.

One feature that I like on the county page is the Illustrated Checklist. It is a bar chart for the county. But it also includes photos of birds that have been taken in the county. That way, for unusual birds, I can see the plumage. Are most of the records for breeding males or perhaps dull-looking immatures? That will let me know exactly what I am looking for when I am out in the field. Of course, I always like to add photos to the Illustrated Checklist if any are missing. But that is easier to do with the following list.

3. Hotspots


Hotspots are public bird watching areas with their own species checklists and bar charts. Sometimes these are very famous birding sites with thousands of bird watchers visiting per year. Other hotspots are very rarely visited by birders. These will give you an idea of what other birds (not just backyard birds) may be found near you.

There are hundreds of hotspots for every state. Each county is likely to have numerous hotspots, too. There is a list of the top 100 hotspots in each state. To see all of them you can go to the map.

You may also like my eBird tutorial with illustrations.

Once you start viewing your backyard birds in Montana, you may find that you want to look for more types of birds than just backyard birds. Then you're on your way to exploring the wildlife in a larger world. There are birds everywhere you go. Different ones in every location. In fact, 10,000 of them. That's enough for several lifetimes of joy just to see them once!

All this because you were curious as to what birds were in your backyard!



Next: Backyard birds of Nebraska

You may be interested: Bird books for each individual state in the US

Related: 34 of the most common birds in the United States (with photos)




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Thank you so much for visiting! Would you please leave a comment to let me know what you thought and how I can make this resource better for you?

--Greg--

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