Midwest Birds

Birds often have specific preferences for food and nesting.  Here are just some of the birds commonly found in various regions throughout the Midwest.

To attract birds to your backyard you need to know what they prefer for food, nesting and cover.  Many of these birds can be attracted in various parts of the Midwest as well as other regions throughout the country.


American Goldfinch eat primarily weed seeds and sometimes insects.  Thistle or Nyjer seed are their favorite food and they will look for near bushy areas.  You can install a small tube feeder or sock that holds thistle seed.  They also enjoy black oil sunflower seeds and look for food and nesting material from thistle, dandelions, sunflowers, coreopsis, cosmos, service berry, birch, hornbeam, zinnia, elm and alder.


Baltimore Oriole look for wooded habitat, so lots of trees and shade are ideal.  The Baltimore Oriole is most commonly found in the eastern United States but most winter in the south.  They arrive for nesting in early spring.  Orioles enjoy flower nectar, fruits, and some nuts and insects.  A platform feeder with orange slices, grapes, cherries, berries, nuts and jellies will help attract them.  An orange nectar feeder will help attract Orioles.  Be sure to be prepared for them as they migrate back to the north.


Barn Swallow are acrobatic birds that constantly eat insects and very little else.  They are great fun to watch in the air, but there is little you can do to attract them.  They prefer open areas and build nests in a sheltered area, often under eaves.  They are not typically backyard birds, but I had a flock for a couple of years for unknown reasons.


Black-capped Chicadee are songbirds found across the northern states and central east.  They enjoy nesting in a wren type house or old rotting out trees.  They are not aggressive and will want a high nesting place and the shelter of shrubs and trees.  They eat primarily insects but will also eat berries and seeds in winter.


Blue Jay like a tray or platform feeders and enjoy suet ball, sunflower seeds and peanuts.  They also enjoy the acorns of oak trees.  But they east a wide variety of foods including seeds, berries and large insects.  They are quite aggressive and will even eat mice, baby birds and eggs on occasion.  Blue Jay nests are big cups of twigs, leaves and other debris.  A nesting shelf may attract them to build a nest.  Jays are very territorial and their feeders and nesting sites should be located where they will not be in close proximately to pets or humans.


Blue-winged Warbler produce a beautiful song, but these tiny birds don’t frequent feeders.  They look for heavy thickets, grasses and hedges for protection.  The warbler’s favored foods are insects and mushy fruit.  If you have a fruit tree, fallen rotting fruit may help attract them.  The sound of dripping water is also very attractive to warblers, they know that a small drip will produce a bath suitable to their size.  The blue-winged warbler is most common in the east central and eastern states, from southeastern Minnesota and through Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee.


Brown-headed Cowbird considered a scourge and nuisance by many.  They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon their young to the owner of the nest.  They cowbird prefers open grassy areas and prefers to feed on the ground.  Do not encourage this bird.



Bullock’s Oriole enjoys eating nectar, fruit, insects and berries and will eat from feeders with suet, oranges, jellies and nectar.  Fruiting shrubs will attract them.  They are most common in the western half of the United States, and migrate toward Central America for winter.  Bullock’s Oriole is noisy and aggressive, often chasing intruders out of their territory.


Cedar Waxwing adore Mountain Ash trees, as well as the fruits of many shrubs and ornamental trees.  They eat voraciously, berries, flower petals and insects.  They will eat from feeding platforms, offer apples, raisins or currants.  Cedar waxwings are most commonly found in Canada and the Central States and generally winter in the south, but can be enticed to winter in your backyard.  They favor an open woodland area with Maple trees, Alders, berry producing trees and shrubs and Dogwoods.  Preferred nesting sites are maple trees and cedar trees.  Provide nesting materials in spring.

Chickadee  prefer safflower, sunflower seeds and peanut pieces, but also enjoy suet and thistle or niger seed.  Chicadees enjoy flowering trees and berry producing shrubs that attract insects.  Growing sunflowers is a sure way to attract chickadees.  Shallow birdbaths are a must for these tiny birds, heated in winter is essential.  Chicadees will need evergreen trees for winter shelter and they will enjoy roosting boxes to stay warm.  Bird houses must be small and mounted high, and they will appreciate wood shavings on the bottom.


Dark-eyed Junco like both sunflower and safflower seeds and also feed on berries and insects.  They prefer to eat from the ground or from platform feeders.  Offer millet, brad crumbs, cracked corn and hulled sunflower seeds.  They will want low shrubs for cover and ground litter.


Downy Woodpecker love suet and also eat sunflower seeds and whole peanuts.  They will take their food from tube feeders, hoppers and platforms.  They will use a nesting box of appropriate size,  One of the best plants to attract a Downy Woodpecker is Mulberry, and they like a wooded area.


Eastern Bluebird will prefer a cavity in a tree for nesting, but they will use nesting boxes.  They will want small fine nesting materials.  Bluebirds will eat primarily insects, in large amounts.  They will also eat berries and fruits from small ornamental trees and shrubs.  You can offer dried fruit and chopped peanuts on a platform feeder.  They are also quite fond mealworms if they are alive.


Evening Grosbeak prefers a dense conifer forest of the far north states or Canada, but has adapted to deciduous habitats.  Preferred nesting sites are large trees and shrubs.  The Evening Grosbeak enjoys large seeds of the ash or maple trees, and will eat safflower, sunflower, suet and millet from feeders.


House Finch are common in large numbers as they are quite social.  There are many types of finches, the House Finch is one of the more attractive.  They prefer safflower and sunflower seeds in winter and thistle or niger seed in summer.  They may also feed on suet and nectar.  They will feed from feeders with small holes such as hopper or tube feeders.  You will want one that allows the whole flock to feed at once.


House Wren is not a large or colorful bird, but is very energetic in song and antics.  The male will build nests ahead of the female’s arrival absolutely everywhere with just about anything it can retrieve.  The female will select a nest and refine it with softer nesting material such as grass, feathers or stringy material.  To attract a house wren to a birdhouse, the hole must be no larger than 1 inch, to prevent starlings and sparrows from entering.  Attract the wrens with brush piles and clusters of shrubs for hunting insects and taking cover.  In addition to insects, they will eat bread crumbs, peanut butter, suet and chopped apples.


Northern Cardinal like sunflower and safflower seed.  They prefer to ground feed but will eat from a sheltered platform feeding station.  Scatter cracked corn, peanuts, melon and squash seeds, raising and apples on the ground near trees or shrubs.  They like to feed early in the morning and late in the evening.  Cardinals like a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees and like to perch away from activity.  Once established Cardinals stay put unless there is a lack of food or their habitat is disturbed.


Northern Flicker is a large bird found all across North America.  Although in the woodpecker family, the flicker feeds on the ground, eating primarily ants.  They also enjoy fruit, berries and seeds.  They will feed readily from a bird feeder with black oil sunflower seeds or from suet feeders.  The Flicker is a cavity nester but will nest in an appropriate birdhouse. 


Orchard Oriole is the smallest oriole, common in the Midwest and the East.  It will only occasionally feed from a nectar feeder, preferring insects, flowers and fruit. The Orchard Oriole return from Central America not quite as early as other Orioles, but you need to have your feeders and nesting boxes ready as early as late March to attract the Orchard Oriole.


Pine Siskin will spend their winters in the warm south of the United States, and return to Northern areas in the spring.  They will often travel in very large flocks.  Their nesting preference is garden habitats that resemble woodland edges with grassy areas and flowers that seed.  They love aphids and seeds, especially weed and tree seeds such as alder, birch, spruce, pine and maple.  From tube feeders they will eat thistle or nyjer seed, and also enjoy sunflower seeds and insect suet.


Purple Martin will need more than a martin house to attract them, but once you do they will come back every year.  If you want Purple Martins, do your homework and maintain their needs meticulously.  They will want to be high above a large open space well away from human activity.  The housing needs to be white or light colored and be kept cleaned and closed after they migrate.  Open them just in time for the arrival of the young scouts who are searching for a nesting site.  The Purple Martins eat flying insects, so birdfeeders won’t help.  They will be looking for insect rich environments.  This is all very brief, you need to know a lot more to attract and keep Purple Martins.


Red-breasted Nuthatch love shelled peanuts.  They will also eat suet, especially it it has peanuts or peanut butter in it.  They also like sunflower seeds and will feed from mesh tube feeders.  They may also eat peanuts right from your hand, they don’t have a lot of fear for humans.  Wooded areas with evergreens create a favored environment for the Nuthatch.


Red-eyed Vireo is most common in the Eastern forests.  It sings all day from dusk to dawn.  They are small and not very colorful, and typically do not come to feeders.  They prefer to perch atop very tall trees.  They eat insect voraciously including tent caterpillars, moths, ants, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, bees and walking sticks.  Most backyards are not plentiful in the amounts and varieties of insects required.


Red-winged Blackbird returns to north nesting grounds in early spring.  They prefer marshes, wet fields and woodland edges throughout all but the very coldest regions of the United States.  They tend to settle into rural areas, but can be attracted with open ground feeders or trays that offer kitchen scraps and seeds.  They eat seeds, grain, berries, fruit, insects and mollusks.  The Red-winged Blackbird is very social, and when their flock grows they can also be very noisy.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a very beautiful songbird.  They are fairly common throughout the Midwest and Northeast, preferring forests, orchards or parks.  They will visit during migration fro black oil sunflower seeds and enjoy berry bushes and fruit trees.


Song Sparrow are common and found throughout North America.  There are many subspecies that vary in appearance.  They don’t all migrate, but those that do may return as early as February.  They are ground nesters and take no interest in nesting boxes.  They will need a brush pile and fine nesting material.  Since they are ground feeders, eating seeds, insects and some fruit, you may need to scatter seeds on the ground to attract them.  Song Sparrows sing many different tunes and hundreds of improvised variations.


White-breasted Nuthatch will eat just about anything but prefer insects and larvae, pine, fir and maple seeds, mountain ash and juniper berries and oak, beech and hickory nuts.  Their favorite feeder foods are sunflower seeds, peanuts, birdseed mixes and suet.  They love lots of trees to hunt for insects, and will scour a tree trunk moving down headfirst.  They also nest in tree cavities, using bark, hair and feathers.  The White-breasted Nuthatch is found throughout North America.


Yellow Warbler is bright and nearly all yellow, and can be found all over North America and into Canada and Mexico in summer.  They prefer gardens, orchards and open forest areas.  Their song is lively and varied in tempo and pitch.  Yellow Warblers forage insects in shrubs and mid level of trees.  They will be attracted by fruiting trees and bushes.

This is only a quick overview of some of the many birds throughout the North and Midwest and their preferences.  So start simple, and find out which birds are most common in your immediate area.

Sharon Dwyer