Feeding winter birds in California

California Towhee by Dario

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 by Greg Gillson

Have you been thinking of setting up a winter bird feeding station? Do you live in California? Then this article is for you!

This article is all about why and how to set up winter bird feeders in California and what birds you can expect to attract.

Image by GeorgiaLens from Pixabay

Why feed winter birds in California?

Winters in much of California are quite mild, even warm compared to much of the country. Do the birds need you to feed them in order to survive the winter? Probably not. Still, there are many benefits to feeding birds.

Birds need our help. Throughout the world bird populations are plummeting. Thus, we need to help them however we can. One way to help birds is to create bird-friendly yards, by landscaping and providing shelter and food to birds.

Young birds in their first year have a high mortality rate. These inexperienced birds fall victim to predators. They sometimes have trouble finding food in winter. Thus, a backyard bird feeder can provide extra food to help these birds survive, when they might not otherwise do so.

Food in late winter can be hard to find. Seeds and fruit have nearly all been eaten. Insects are in very short supply. You can help birds survive the end of winter until new food sources arrive in spring. 

The colder weather means that birds need extra calories in winter. You can provide that with a bird feeder.

The joy of feeding birds is good for your mental health. Just watching birds come and go about their normal daily activities at your feeder can calm the soul. They chirp and flutter, squabble and argue. Somehow that’s good for us to watch!

Feeding birds gives us awareness and appreciation of the natural world. That bond to wildness and nature helps us look outside ourselves. It gives us peace of mind. Noticing birds helps us notice other wild things. This appreciation and gratitude leads to happiness. And we can all use more of that!

What birds come to feeders in winter in California?

Because of its mild climate, California has many resident birds that visit your backyard year-round. Additionally, many birds that summer in the north migrate south to California for the winter.

I’ve previously written an article on the most common backyard birds in California. That article also discusses identification. So if you are still learning how to tell one bird from another, then you should check out that article after you finish here.

Here, then are a few of the beautiful and interesting birds you can attract to your winter feeder in California. For each I’ll describe a little about them. Then I’ll tell you what to feed each of these birds to attract them to your yard in winter.

Photo of male House Finch on branch
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Finch: 

This species is found in rural areas of the West and in residential areas throughout the United States. They are found in all of California except the high mountains. They are found in flocks.

They have a cheerful song and give constant chirping calls.

Both genders are striped with gray brown. The males have reddish-orange foreheads, breasts, and rumps.

House Finches love black oil sunflower seeds from a tube feeder or hopper feeder. They also eat Niger seeds from a finch feeder or thistle sock.

Photo of male Lesser Goldfinch in willows
Lesser Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Lesser Goldfinch: 

In the drier areas of the West these tiny finches replace American Goldfinches. They are found in all of California except high mountains. They frequent weedy fields and backyards. They are usually found in small flocks.

They have both harsh and mournful calls. Summer songs by the male are prolonged and lilting.

Males are brighter than females, with a black crown. They maintain their bright plumage throughout the year.

Lesser Goldfinches are especially attracted to Niger seed from a finch feeder or thistle sock. They also like hulled sunflower seeds from a tube feeder or hopper feeder.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow on fir bough
White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

White-crowned Sparrow: 

These birds breed along the coast and in the high mountains of California. Birds from the far North spend the winters in chaparral, deserts, woodlands, and residential areas in California. 

They are frequently found in brush piles and woody backyard shrubs.

They sing songs with sweet and cheer notes and trills in summer, but also in winter and migration. Gives a slightly metallic pink note. They have slightly different song dialects in different regions of North America.

The crown stripes of immature birds are brown and cream for the first year of life.

White-crowned Sparrows will eat black oil sunflower seeds or mixed seeds from a platform or hopper feeder.

Photo of Song Sparrow in cattails
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Song Sparrow: 

This is a common wetland bird across North America that also hides out in backyards with large bushes and hedges. In California it is found throughout.

It forages and hops on the ground where its heavy dark brown streaking provides camouflage in the shadows.

It has a a trilled song that starts with two burry notes and a buzz. Its call sounds like chimp.

Song Sparrows will eat mixed seeds and black oil sunflower seeds from a hopper or platform feeder.

Photo of female Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco on branch
Dark-eyed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Dark-eyed Junco: 

Breeds in mountains of eastern and western United States and across Canada. Winters throughout the United States. This tiny little sparrow lives in damp conifer forests along the coast and in the mountains of California. Northern birds migrate to California in the winter to all areas, including backyards in the lowlands.

It flashes its white outer tail feathers and gives twittering and smacking calls as it feeds in flocks on the ground. The spring song is a prolonged musical trill on one pitch.

This species is varied regionally. All variation types occur in California in the winter. The summer breeding birds are of the Oregon Junco variety, with brown back and black (male) or gray (female) hood.

Dark-eyed Juncos prefer the smaller seeds found in mixed bird seed. They will come to a platform feeder or hopper feeder.

               California Towhee by Dario

California Towhee: 

This very large sparrow is native to the chaparral habitats of California and Baja. It is not found in the highest mountains or deserts. While other chaparral species have been pushed farther into the wilderness by urban sprawl, California Towhees have adapted to residential life. 

They are found in all backyards in northern California oak woodlands to southern California. 

Their common call is a loud metallic pink note, like two metal pipes being struck together. Their song is a fast trill of these same notes.

These birds are brown throughout. The under tail has a warm cinnamon coloration.

California Towhees will eat black oil sunflower seeds and mixed seeds from a platform feeder.

Photo of California Scrub-Jay on walkway
California Scrub-Jay
Photo by Greg Gillson

California Scrub-Jay: 

This bold, noisy, jay is common in residential backyards along the West Coast. 

In California it is native in oak-chaparral away from dense conifer forests and high mountains.

One common call is a single hoarse rising shreeink call. A similar call is a fast repeated hoarse shrink, shrink, shrink.

It has a round blue head with an incomplete necklace of blue onto the breast. The wings and tail are also blue. The face is black. The back is gray. The under parts are white or pale gray.

Because they may gobble up a lot of sunflower seeds at once, and sometimes beat up on smaller birds, they are not welcome by everyone at the feeder.

California Scrub-Jays will eat fruit, sunflower seeds, and suet from platform or hopper feeders.

Photo of Mourning Dove on tree limb
Mourning Dove
Greg Gillson

Mourning Dove: 

Widespread across the United States. In California these larger feeder birds are found in woodland edges and stream sides. They are common in rural and residential settings.

Their cooing song sounds like sad crying, boo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo.

They often feed on the ground under the feeder, or on larger feeders. You may see them perched on wires above the road or on the peak of a roof.

They are pale brown with a pinkish hue on the breast. They have some black spots on the wing coverts. The head is small. The tail is long and pointed.

Mourning Doves eat cracked corn, sunflower seeds, and mixed seeds from platform feeders.

Photo of male Nuttall's Woodpecker on broken tree trunk
Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson

Nuttall’s Woodpecker: 

This bird is nearly restricted to California. It is common in live oak woodlands throughout the state. 

It avoids dense conifers in the north coast region and mountains. It is not found in the deserts. It visits backyards with oak or sycamore trees or conifers.

It is rather noisy, giving sharp pitick calls and similar longer rattles.

It is patterned with black and white like many woodpeckers, but the back is completely barred across with alternating black and white bars.

Nuttall’s Woodpeckers will eat suet from a special suet feeder or cage. They may also eat fruit.

Photo of male Anna's Hummingbird on leafy twig
Anna’s Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

Anna’s Hummingbird: 

One of 3 resident hummingbird species in California, joining 3 other migrant species, this bird is common in residential areas the length of the state.

They are large and fairly noisy. They give high sharp stit notes, chatter a bit when chasing other hummingbirds. The males give a prolonged squeaky and scratchy “song” in winter and spring from an exposed perch.

They are green above and gray and green across the underparts. The male’s whole head and throat is iridescent pinkish-ruby. The female usually has a spot of pink on the central throat.

Anna’s Hummingbirds drink nectar from hummingbird feeders.

Setting up a winter bird feeding station in California

To get you started, I suggest buying two feeders. The first is a tube feeder for black oil sunflower seeds to attract the finches. The second feeder should be a hopper feeder with mixed seed (avoid milo!). Check out the bird seed article below.

Of course, if you want, you may add a suet feeder, offer various fruit, add a Niger seed feeder, and a hummingbird feeder! In the “related articles” below I describe more about the feeders and foods that are best to attract birds. Don’t forget to look at my article on my recommended bird feeder setup.

Set up your feeders in October or November to get the best response. Northern sparrows will have reached California by then. In late fall and early winter birds are moving around looking for a reliable supply of winter food. 

By the end of December all birds are pretty much settled in for the winter. If you wait until then to set up your feeders you may have a harder time attracting birds. Birds will remain in their local wintering area until they migrate back north in March or April.

Don’t forget water. You can purchase a bird bath or place out a simple saucer with water. It’s often quite dry in California in fall and early winter. Birds appreciate drinking and bathing water, summer and winter.

Wrapping Up

California’s diverse landscapes offer a range of experiences for birds during winter, depending on several factors:

Regional Climate:

Winters are generally mild with minimal change, offering abundant food sources and comfortable temperatures for many resident species. Winters can be colder with drier conditions, pushing some species to lower elevations or prompting migration. Higher elevations experience colder temperatures and snowfall, forcing birds to adapt or migrate to lower valleys.

Adaptation Strategies:

Many birds shift diets in winter, focusing on high-fat seeds, nuts, and berries. Some glean insects under bark or seek food in sheltered areas. They will fluff their feathers for insulation, huddle together for warmth, and decrease activity levels to conserve energy and some birds move to lower elevations or seek sheltered woodlands or coastal areas with milder conditions.

Bird Populations in Winter:

Many California birds like chickadees, jays, woodpeckers, and raptors remain year-round, adapting to the changing conditions. Some species from the north migrate south to California, like warblers, sparrows, and waterfowl, seeking abundant food and warmer temperatures. However, bird populations and winter experiences can differ significantly across California’s varied landscapes and microclimates.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where are some good birding spots in California in the winter?

California’s diverse landscapes offer a wealth of birding opportunities in winter, and the possibilities vary depending on your preferred locations and the kinds of birds you’re hoping to see. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Coastal California:

  • Morro Bay, Central Coast: This charming town is a hotspot for wintering waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors. Visit Morro Bay Estuary Natural Reserve and Morro Rock for incredible sightings.
  • Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco: Stunning coastal cliffs, tidal marshes, and forests attract diverse species like loons, grebes, raptors, and wintering warblers.
  • San Diego Coast: Explore tide pools and coastal scrub in areas like Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Cabrillo National Monument for resident and migratory birds like gulls, oystercatchers, and hummingbirds.

Central Valley and Deserts:

  • Owens Valley, eastern California: This high-desert valley attracts thousands of sandhill cranes during winter. Visit Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve to witness their majestic gathering.
  • Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, near Sacramento: This vast wetland complex provides important habitat for waterfowl, herons, egrets, and raptors. Explore the various trails and blinds for up-close encounters.
  • Joshua Tree National Park: Though winters can be chilly, the park offers excellent opportunities to see desert birds like roadrunners, cactus wrens, and golden eagles. Hike scenic trails and keep an eye out for these fascinating feathered residents.


  • Lake Tahoe area: The surrounding forests and mountain lakes offer winter refuge for birds like chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, and woodpeckers. Explore hiking trails near the lake or visit wildlife areas like Fallen Leaf Lake for diverse sightings.
  • Yosemite National Park: While higher elevations may be snow-covered, lower valleys and foothills provide habitat for resident species like Clark’s nutcrackers, Steller’s jays, and mountain chickadees. Visit Lower Yosemite Fall and Badger Pass Ski Area for winter birding opportunities.
  • Humboldt Redwoods State Park, northern California: The ancient redwoods offer sheltered habitat for wintering birds like kinglets, warblers, and Townsend’s solitaires. Explore the scenic trails and enjoy the serene atmosphere while listening for their calls.

Where do hummingbirds go in winter in California?

California’s diverse landscapes offer different experiences for hummingbirds in winter, depending on the species and location:

In coastal California, most hummingbird species like Anna’s Hummingbird and Allen’s Hummingbird are resident year-round, especially along the warmer southern coast.

Some species like Rufous Hummingbird and Calliope Hummingbird migrate south to Mexico and Central America.

Mountain areas with colder temperatures may experience some hummingbird migration to lower elevations within the state.

Related Articles: 

The most common backyard birds in California

Red, Orange & Yellow Birds in California

My recommended bird feeder setup

Bird seeds that attract the most birds

Different kinds of bird feeders for different birds

Comments 7
  1. This was very helpful and well written. Thank you! I feed a variety of birds outside of my apartment window and googled "best birdseed for Southern California" and found this article. I do buy my birdseed from Amazon but have been price shopping as I'm not currently working and need to stay frugal. I can't give up feeding my little birds though! As you mentioned in your piece it really does bring me joy and listening to them singing outside of my window all day is everything to me. Thank you!

  2. I'm so glad you are enjoying feeding the birds, Elyse!

    Yes, the sound of birds singing or even squabbling at the feeders outside the window is a simple joy of life!

    And thank you so much for letting me know your Google search term. It both lets me know what my readers are looking for, and it tells me that Google is showing my article for that search term.

  3. I've been feeding my birds for years now in so cal and it is truly a joy as you mentioned, this article helped me to identify who's who. I have everyone in this article but the Nuttall's Woodpecker. I'm hoping to see that species one day. Thank you so much.
    ps I have a huge Raven that I wanna feed just don't know how to get him over lol I pinned this article for future TY again.

  4. Chek any oaks in your area for the Nuttall's Woodpecker. I'm glad this was helpful in knowing exactly who is coming to your feeders!

  5. Hello I used to use Amazon as well until I went to Big Lots I get a huge bag for 12$ now and it last about month or less

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