How to Lure Wild Birds – Winter is for the Birds


So only Cardinals look good in the snow?  I get hundreds of searches a week all year for Cardinals and Blue Jays in the snow, so it seems they are the only birds people want to see foraging around in Winter. I have two birds I see less frequently in this post. Click on any to make much larger.


The White-throated Sparrow is unusual in my bird-watching at the Falls. It is rarely seen in my garden due to their preference of thickets.

In the post, When You Need a New Bird Feeder, I got a comment on non-native Sparrows, like the House Sparrow, at the feeder.


I said many sparrows are native, but I see them infrequently in Winter. So I just had to lure one in for this post.


You want to know how?

I first went to an area with dense understory plants. Next, I set out my iPhone and started playing the calls of Chickadees. When alone in the woods, I look a little less ridiculous playing bird calls. The birds are fooled when in their habitat.


I learned this from my bird watching friends. Many birds respond to the chatter of the Chickadees. Varieties of birds will fly to where the phone is playing the calls. Take notice of how many birds are intently watching in the direction of the iPhone. They are not watching me!


The phone was put on a log (seen above) where I want birds to visit, and the rest is up to them. The Cardinal is looking at the log holding the iPhone. My app is by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but there are many good ones on iTunes.


I will play a Cardinal song to lure Cardinals for instance.


The bird calls bring them in close too. It is similar to how a hunter calls in geese and ducks.

Play a Red-tailed Hawk and see what happens. You won’t see a bird for days.


Last January, I showed how to bring birds to your habitat naturally with shelter plants and fruit, nut and berry producing shrubs and trees. I also showed dangers that fly into a garden brimming with songbirds.

But of course, there is always the glamour shots to show that the system works and can work for you too. It really is more than just feeding backyard birds.


The series went on to explain how to build a winter photo studio for the birds, with the intent to get natural photos. I also covered how birds stay warm in Winter, and started the series with this introductory post.

The other bird seen less frequently in my garden is the Tufted Titmouse. They like to be near wooded areas and are seen at many feeders where the conditions are better suited to their behavior.

The other bird seen less frequently in my garden is the Tufted Titmouse. They like to be near wooded areas and are seen at many feeders where the conditions are better suited to their behavior.

Birds that rely on natural foraging make much more difficult birds to photograph. There is little control where they land. Branches are often in the way and many times the background of the composition is not ideal. But this can be modified like I showed in the posts last year. In the field, I carry portable pruners to clip twigs where necessary. In the photo above, I just did not clip enough.


You don’t generally want the birds in deep thicket like above and below.  Exposure is a bit trickier and the mass of branches often is distracting. It is work finding an angle that helps focus on the bird. This is where pruning helps. I can see three twigs needing removal, above and below.

By baiting the birds with food, you can have them land more predictably. I carry seed in my Jeep for these occasions. Once you lure them in, the food keeps them hanging around. By observing, you see where they land most frequently. Prune around those spots.


Do you think nature photographers just sit and wait? I took a class in 2011 where a renowned wildlife photographer spilled the secrets on pruning and baiting. There is a lot of waiting, but also there is things to do to increase the odds. I learned from him how to create the backyard studio.


Have a look at my links in this post and follow along for more tips this coming year.


I have these little birds in flight as well. To capture birds in flight, see my post, Gulls in Flight – A Photography Learning Experience, and  Winging It – Gulls in Flight Part 2.

Happy Holidays, may they be bright with colorful birds!

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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55 Responses to How to Lure Wild Birds – Winter is for the Birds

  1. I LOVE THIS!!! 😀

    So cute.

    I hope you have a beautiful day! ❤

  2. Luring the Birds is a must in the winter garden… keep our feathered friends happy and healthy makes for a beautiful spring garden.

    • I don’t lure them in my garden, but I never thought about how having them makes for a spring garden. When the flowers are blooming my seed feeders are generally down. I always hope they eat from the garden instead.

  3. acuriousgal says:

    Perfect, Donna…..this is exactly what I needed!!!

  4. Hope says:

    I could stay on your blog all day! Thank you!!! 🙂

  5. Victor Ho says:

    Cheating! Ha, what a great idea to play bird calls. And even a woodpecker! No jay? I saw all these same birds around the feeder on Long Island. We consistently got two types of woodpecker but only a single bird which made me wonder how they find a mate. Here, I’ve only seen a few birds and mostly doves and pigeons. There is water in this desert environment, but I don’t see too much natural tree growth. Come to think of it I’m not seeing many sea birds either.

    • Even the naturalist who taught me this said it was cheating! He does it when he leads a tour of bird watchers so they can see a variety of birds. Since I like photographing them, it was a great idea for me. Funny you are seeing less sea bird. I thought they are in migration there?

  6. Barb says:

    I continue to marvel at your wonerful photographs. I’m particularly charmed by the tufted titmouse.

    • Thanks Barb. I like them too, but mostly see them at the Falls. At the Falls, they are the most brave of the birds, coming right up to me. Yesterday, them and a few chickadees followed be down a trail back to my truck. I guess they thought the food was in my pocket, but it was in the truck.

  7. Beautiful photos as usual Donna! I love the background colors too that highlight the birds. So unusual to see the robin and white-throated sparrow around in winter. We see them here during their spring and fall migration, but that’s about it. When you get a chance can you email me at please? I have a question about one of the issues you blogged about a few months ago. Thanks so much.

    • I have seen about a hundred robins at the Falls. I am so surprised they still remain. They are living off crabapples. I too see this sparrow in the summer, but rarely after the snow falls. That is what prompted me to lure in the birds, to see what oddities I would get.

  8. igardendaily says:

    Your photos of birds are incredible. I’ve never seen so many birds up close like this and they are so cool-looking. It makes a lot of sense to create a “studio” but I had no idea there were calls available to lure them in. I must also say you are dedicated and good to get these wonderful shots with all the pruning that must be done meaning you have to move around and then wait for them to land again. Super!

    • Thank you. I am not sure the bird calls were developed to lure in birds, but to teach bird watchers the calls so they would recognize them in the field. I found it helpful on both accounts. The studio works great. You set it up so the birds land where it is best for your photos, which is close to the window from where I shoot them. I prune very little in the field because it is not my property and I also go to this same place all winter long. Since I started doing this, I see so many bird watchers stopping at my special spot now.

  9. Merilee says:

    I love all of these wonderful birds!

  10. Annette says:

    Stunning pictures and such colourful birds! Well done. Very cheeky to attract them with birdsong ;). A 300mm lens comes in very handy for this job. Have a great christmas and new year!

  11. We see the white throated sparrow, along with the white crowned, but it seemed to me they migrated away during winter. I’ll have to watch more carefully now to see if they are sticking around in the cold!

    • Thank you for your experience. I see both sparrows in summer too, but it is odd to see them still hanging around here in winter. This post had a different reason for being posted, but I do have this sparrow coming up featured in a post on Conservation Landscaping. I believe where it is staying has a lot to do with why it is still here. Thank you for noting seeing them in Chicago in warmer weather.

  12. Love this! I often wondered how you are able to get such beautiful photographs of so many birds. Very clever!

    • This Fall was the first time I used the phone to lure in birds. I was seeing very few anywhere and then I remembered what a friend taught me, so I have been doing since the snow first fell. I do feel funny playing bird calls, so I don’t do it at the home feeders.

  13. franzisofie says:

    Birds look always fluffy to me. But I love it! Your photos are great!

  14. Hi Donna, that is an incredible post. I had never thought about playing bird calls. I often will get branches and small logs set up on a porch, with some bird feed near or under it and that has worked wonders. I also like the way you photograph birds in the trees, for me those are some of the best finds as they are not sitting on a feeder. What length lenses do you typically use for your bird photos?

    • Thanks very much Rob. That is high praise coming from a pro such as yourself. You do pretty much what I do for my backyard studio, but I also add branch perches and prune my trees for better photo backgrounds. I have three poplar logs I use over and over all year. The woodpeckers like them because being old, the insects lay eggs in them or over winter in them.
      In this post, I am in the woods at the park. I set up a station for photographing birds a few years ago, but the parks crew cut down the tree I was maintaining. They also put up signs for no parking because I apparently made such a good viewing spot that the birdwatchers came in numbers and parked along the road – not knowing there is a parking lot with a path through the woods right to my spot. So that is why my tree is gone. Every nice photo I took of birds was on that tree. I still use the spot because the birds have come to know me so well that they follow me up the trail back to my truck – flying feet ahead of me, stopping on a low branch hoping I will give them more food.
      I used a 28-300mm for this session because most birds are really close to me. When shooting marsh birds, I use a 80-400mm. As you know it is very heavy and hard to hand hold. I am getting better at that though. Full zoom, the lens is not that sharp either, so it is not all me.

  15. Pat says:

    Lovely photos of the birds in winter.

  16. How wonderful!!! I had no idea of this trick!!! Brilliant and -as always – wonderful wonderful shots, Donna!!!! 🙂

  17. Denise says:

    Wow! Beautiful. Especially the woodpecker. And that last photo. Oh, they are all wonderful. Happy Holidays.

  18. alesiablogs says:

    This has got to be one of the best posts I have seen you do. It was just chalked full of information. I am going to go download birds talking as soon as I stop commenting. lol Merry Christmas to one of my fav bloggers!

    • Thank you. Bird calls are fun to learn. I do get confused by them often because birds have quite a few in the same species. Merry Christmas to you Alesia. I hope your New Year brings you peace and happiness.

  19. These are great photos and great tips. I, too, was surprised to see photos of robins in winter. I wonder if people who want to protect their berry plants could use hawk calls to deter birds.

  20. Chloris says:

    What beautiful, beautiful photos and what exciting birds you have there. We have sparrows of course but the other birds you have are unknown here and so lovely.

  21. Nick Hunter says:

    Excellent post with much valuable information and very good photos. As a student and practitioner of sustainable wildlife management practices, I applaud you for promoting a holistic, systems approach for the backyard.

  22. aha the tricks of the trade. LOL I simply step out the door where I also garden for them and do the call myself and in they come 🙂 since I have a DUMB phone all they will ever get is my poor attempts 🙂 Love your shots! I will sit on the roof and try to capture them from there though they are wary still of me being above them 🙂

    A very Merry Christmas and a Joy filled Holiday Season to you and your birds 🙂

  23. Carolyn says:

    You are simply the best at capturing bird images, Donna. Merry Merry Christmas to you and yours sweet friend!

  24. A.M.B. says:

    “Play a Red-tailed Hawk and see what happens. You won’t see a bird for days.” Ha ha! This made me laugh. Great photos, as usual!

  25. I play songs of birds in the garden in spring and summer but never thought of it in winter…will give it a try!!

  26. paxami says:

    Who would have thunk it? IPhone birdsongs! Cheating or not, you are just the best and so generous with your knowledge. Thank you for sharing– many do not and shield their know how.

    • It works like a charm too. I was never one to learn calls like my friends the birdwatchers, so this is a blessing for me. Birds in nature preserves are so wary and yet, they respond to the calls by the phone.

  27. bluebrightly says:

    Gorgeous photos! I meant to tell you that I found you through Lisa of Zeebra fame!

  28. supernova1c says:

    Hi Donna, Happy New Year to you and your family.
    I hope 2014 is wonderful for you 🙂
    Regards James.

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