Do Birds Lay Eggs In Winter? 6 Late-Nesters

Birds that lay eggs in the winter or fall months are perceived as unusual in the avian world. In fact, they are. We associate nesting birds and little chicks with spring and the onset of warm weather so it’s a great question.

There are multiple birds that are known to lay eggs in the winter or start nesting late into the fall. In fact, birds like the Great-horned Owl raise hatchlings during the snowy winter months. Here are several examples of chilly hatchlings in North America.

  • Crossbill
  • Bald Eagle
  • Eurasian Collared Dove
  • Great-horned Owl
  • American Goldfinch
  • Mourning Dove 

Birds like the American Goldfinch, who mainly feed their hatchlings seeds, tend to breed late in the season which uniquely corresponds to seeding wildflowers like Nyjer, Dandelion, and Sunflower. Below, we’ll explore what birds lay eggs in winter and fall months and how they use late-nesting and early-nesting techniques to their advantage.

photo: Allen Hack American Goldfinch Winter Feeding

Let’s Understand Why Most Birds Breed In Spring

There are multiple reasons why birds mate and lay eggs during normal spring breeding months. For one, and the most important, is a secure food source. Birds that breed in early spring know their preferred insects and seeds are on the way.

Like birds, insects have their own breeding schedule, usually, spring because of increasing temperature. The overwhelming majority of birds eat multiple species of insects as their main food source. For example, the American Goldfinch is mainly granivorous meaning they mainly feed on seeds and are actually one of the strictest vegetarians in the avian world. That being said, the American Goldfinch will feed on insects occasionally, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Temperate conditions like spring and summer are crucial to insect populations. Without them, most birds couldn’t lay eggs at any time of year. The fact is, breeding for birds is directly correlated to the life cycle of insects regardless the stage of insect development. Some species of birds prefer the larval stage of insects while others prefer the adult; therefore, breeding during these times of insect development and activity ensures food for their offspring.

Why Would Birds Breed And Lay Eggs In Winter If Insect Activity Is At Its Lowest?

Birds that lay eggs in fall and winter, known as late-nesters, simply choose from an insect free menu. Most birds that lay eggs in fall and winter feed on mammals, fish, other birds or late blooming seeds like conifer cones. One of the best examples of North American breeding birds that do this is the Great-horned Owl. In fact, they are such a late-nester that they’re best described as early nesters.

The Great-horned Owls are the earliest birds to breed in North America. They get it started before any other bird. Here in North America, the courtship ritual takes place in October through December. Mating and egg laying doesn’t occur until late December to January.

Once the 1-5 eggs are laid, the female will take incubation duty lasting from 28-35 days, in the cold environment. The male will gather food like jackrabbits, rodents, and other birds to support her and the brood.

Winter breeding offers another advantage for the Great-horned Owl because of the longer nights. Most owls hunt at night so the extra hours of darkness during winter months provide more hunting time and gives the Great-horned Owl an advantage over day hunting raptors like the Bald Eagle.

Eagles Lay Eggs And Raise Young In Winter

Raptors like hawks tend to lay eggs in the spring months of April-May. Eagles, on the other hand, are a great example of birds that lay eggs in the winter. They too are early nesters. Egg laying usually begins in late February often in extremely cold and snowy conditions.

Bald Eagle eggs usually hatch in mid April to early May. They will not fledge until late June or early July. At this point, young fledglings will still remain close to the nest under the watchful eye of the parents for an additional 6 weeks honing their wing and talon skills.

Young Eagles tend to move out on their own at around 8 weeks after fledging and can fledge anytime between 8-14 weeks old. The advantage here is by the time the young eaglets fledge, late summer has yielded ample food sources in optimum conditions for the young to scavenge and attempt to catch live prey.

The Red And White-winged Crossbill Can Lay Eggs At Any Time

Photo: Gary Yankech Male and Female Red Crossbill

North American Crossbills have an open breeding schedule and have been recorded laying eggs in every month of the year. It’s almost best to consider the Crossbill a perpetual nester as they’re known to lay eggs in the middle of winter.

Crossbills have only one requirement for breeding and that’s a steady supply of conifer cone seeds. Providing there are adequate seeding conifers like the Douglas Fir, Hemlock, Pines, and Spruce trees, the female seems at the ready to produce a brood.

Crossbills have a unique beak where the mandibles cross at the tip. This crossed mandible is perfectly suited for prying between the scale of conifer cones to extract seeds with great efficiency. Additionally, Crossbills are able to store seeds in their throat or “crop” which enables them to feed their brood more productively.

Eurasian Collared & Mourning Doves Are Late-nesters & Lay Eggs Year Around | Including Winter

Doves are known to lay eggs in winter and year around. Here in my location of South Florida, these southern Doves can produce as many as 6 broods in a year yet only lay two eggs per brood. However, the ones who make their home farther north may produce fewer broods and avoid nesting during extremely cold months or when seeds are at lower levels.

Like other winter nesters, Doves feed almost exclusively on seeds. For instance, Doves consume the widest range of seeds than any other North American bird which may lend to it’s near perpetual breeding cycle. They are easily lured to bird feeders and are known to enjoy core, millet, safflower, and sunflower.

Mourning Doves have a high mortality rate which is another reason for multiple annual broods. While not consistent, adults can suffer a 58% mortality rate while juvenile mortality can spike to 69% annualy.

All Doves reproduce in a short amount of time, about 6 weeks after the egg has been laid the young are on there own and the parent birds move on to their next brood. Surprisingly, Doves, Pigeons, Flamingos, and Penguins all share an interesting reproductive trait which may promote brood success.

They all feed their offspring milk! Ok, it’s not actual milk from a mammal’s mammary glands though it is referred to as “pigeon’s milk” or “Crop Milk”. This white secretion, in the case of Mourning Doves, is given by both parents for around 5 days after hatching and comes from the lining of the crop of the parent birds. After this short period, seeds are introduced. The crop on a bird is basically a muscular pouch in the esophagus used to store food.

How To Help Birds In Winter

photo: DaPuglet Pileated Woodpecker At Suet Feeder In Winter

Not only late and early nesters appreciate yummy suet and winter bird seed, but spring nesters do as well. During the cold winter and fall months, suet is perhaps the best choice to offer birds that may not have migrated. Suet is a high-calorie often seed infused animal fat concoction that’s highly valuable to wintering birds.

Here are binoculars I like to observe these winter visitors.

Related Questions

How long does it take for birds to lay eggs after a nest is built?

1-4 days after a nest is built most birds will start laying eggs. Often times, nest building takes longer than egg laying. Most birds take 24 hours to lay one egg.

Do birds leave their eggs unattended?

For the most part, no, bird eggs need their temperature maintained for proper development. Some bird species will take breaks while the other parent incubates. Some species, like Penguins, only the male incubates and takes zero breaks.

Will birds abandon a nest if touched?

Vultures, kiwis, and Parrots have well-developed olfactory glands and are thought to be able to smell and taste. However, the overwhelming majority of birds do not have well-developed olfactory systems and smell nothing. That being said, it’s best not to touch a nest, especially with eggs, as you are likely being watched and making the parent bird nervous though they are unlikely to abandon the nest.