It’s funny to think that before the great COVID-19 pandemic, Paste functioned merely as a one-stop shop on the internet for news and critical opinion on music, film, comedy, games, drink, television and politics … with nary a lick of bird content to be found. Can you even imagine such a time, dear reader? A time when you’d have to make do with only movie lists, whiskey reviews or videogame appraisals, rather than essays on the joy of spotting a Cedar Waxwing outside your door? Can you even call a website a website, really, if it doesn’t have at least one Northern Flicker photo on it?
In all seriousness, though, it was an unexpected but not unpleasant surprise to suddenly see “bird content” start appearing on Paste in 2020, courtesy of editor in chief Josh Jackson, who in his quarantine boredom began to notice a constellation of interesting birds in his own backyard he’d never acknowledged before. At the time, we staffers of Paste gently ribbed our own editor for this abrupt and rapidly growing fascination in birding. I know I certainly made a joke or two at the man’s expense … and then I bought a house for the first time in early 2021. Suddenly, I was presented with my own backyard, and my own chance to observe the local avian visitors of Richmond, Virginia. And within a few months, wouldn’t you know it—our backyard was full of bird feeders, and I had a document in my phone keeping track of every species I’d sighted within the confines of my yard. Lord help me, I joined Josh as a fellow Bird Person.
Months later, I must admit that the backyard birds fill me with joy on a daily basis, as does the gamification of trying to spot new species solely within my own backyard. Unlike Josh, who ventures into the wild on genuine birding expeditions, my game is considerably more simple—I focus solely on what I can spot from my own property, in the field of what one might refer to as “backyard birds.” And then I rank them by the most important property of all: cuteness.
What makes a bird “cute,” exactly? Showy and attractive colors can help, but they aren’t really necessary. When you really drill down to it, “cuteness” often has more to do with factors such as size (cute birds tend to be small), shape (cute birds tend to be round), and a bird’s “expression,” as it were, in addition to factors such as endearing behaviors. And now that I’ve gathered the cutest backyard visitors, I’m ready to share them with you. Here they are, ranked by cuteness.
Very common, very distinctive and very easy to identify, the cardinal is one of the most beloved North American birds in general, and is in fact the state bird of seven different U.S. states, more than any other species—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia and my own Virginia all have equal claim on it. Despite that, I can actually imagine that some people wouldn’t find the cardinal traditionally “cute,” despite the iconic coloration—it might be seen as a bit too large or ungainly for “cute” status. However, watching these guys nesting in my own Azalea bushes finally won me over, as does the underrated visual appeal of a female cardinal, whose bright orange beak stands out in a joyous way from the rest of its face. Even more dazzling is the rarely sighted, brilliantly yellow variation of the cardinal, which I can only imagine would be a dazzling backyard visitor. And who doesn’t love that crest, especially when they spike it up like an avian pompadour?
The Eastern Towhee’s coloration is quite striking—at first sight you might look at one and think it was some kind of strange American robin, thanks to the orange patch on its side, but the clear delineation between sections of black, orange and white really makes it stand out in a unique way. Its face and blood red eyes might initially seem a bit dire or intimidating, but this is a bird that becomes significantly more cute as you see it in motion. Primarily a ground feeder, the Eastern Towhee is particularly cute as it hops around and forages, particularly when it uses both of its legs to simultaneously hop-kick a patch of dirt or leaves, and then gobbles up whatever insects or seeds it unearths. Most birds are content to just peck around, but this one loves its boisterous jump kicks.
The American Goldfinch is a bird you might be able to identify even if you’ve never seen one, because if you’ve heard the name, the bird looks exactly like you’d probably picture it. Unofficially the cutest of the common finches, a class of bird that can be a bit plain in many species, the Goldfinch is distinctive and unusual enough to stand out. Unlike most finches, which happily visit any kind of backyard feeder to snack on sunflower or safflower seeds, Goldfinches have rather specific taste for tiny seeds such as nyjer/thistle, which leads to many backyard birders buying special feeders (often yellow-colored) specifically in the hopes of attracting these guys. In my own backyard, the charming little finches developed a fondness for the seeds of our Thai basil plant, and we can occasionally watch them as they balance on a basil stem like they weigh nothing at all.
These arched little guys have a distinctive body shape, one that becomes easy to spot from far away once you become familiar with it. An interesting combination of round and angular, their bodies are small, plump and occasionally puffy, as these guys seem to enjoy puffing out all their feathers and even rolling around on my deck as they clean themselves. Opportunists who seem happy to eat practically anything in my yard, the Carolina Wren in particular has a richer color scheme than several of the other wrens you’re likely to encounter in your backyard, with a bronzed belly that gives them a more stately appearance. They’re quite vocal as well, happy to let you know they’re around with their surprisingly loud songs.
Hummingbirds by nature can look a little alien, but they’re so small and delicate that they can’t help but be cute at the same time. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is one of the most likely to see in your backyard, at least on the East coast, and it can boast iridescent, emerald green feathers and the aforementioned crimson throat that make it much easier to spot at a distance. Having a dedicated hummingbird feeder is the best way to get to observe them acrobatically flitting about at high speed, but they also visit yards without hummingbird feeders if there are flower blossoms around. I’ve even seen one land on a strand of lights just outside my office window—a rare chance to see this bird at rest, considering that you’re likely to almost always see it moving at a high rate of speed.
Bluebirds in general hold a special place in American folklore, being considered signs of cheer and good luck for centuries. They’re so well liked, in fact, that mankind’s relationship with the bluebird is a significant ecological success story—their numbers in North America were declining precipitously through the 20th century thanks to a loss of habitat and nesting sites, but a dedicated effort to establish human-built nest boxes across the U.S. led to a big rebound in the bluebird population in the last half century. For this reason, many birders still try to attract them to their yards with blue nest boxes, to see their cheerful faces a bit more closely. Bluebirds are a good reason to get backyard feeder cups filled with dried mealworms in particular, as it’s a treat they’re known to love.
Many woodpeckers (such as the big-crested Pileated Woodpecker) are visually striking, but it’s the tiny Downy that is undeniably “cute.” The smallest woodpecker in North America, it has big eyes and an almost Disney like expression of innocence on its face—it’s very easy to imagine these guys within the confines of an animated feature film. They’re small but mighty, with a drumming call that can be far louder and more impressive than you’d think to look at their small bills. And they’re quite outgoing as well, being one of the most common visitors at many backyard suet feeders. There isn’t a day that goes by that these guys don’t pay a visit to my yard, but I’m always happy to see them.
Gaze upon a bird face crafted for maximum cuteness. From their gray crest, which looks almost like a miniaturized version of a cardinal’s, to their tiny bill and big, shiny black eyes, the Tufted Titmouse absolutely looks like something that was drawn by an illustrator rather than something that evolved in nature. Their eyes in particular are capable of taking up so much of their faces that they look like Japanese chibi characters. In backyard settings they’re pretty social, and like the Carolina Wren they can put on quite a vocal display when they feel like it. Their overall visual appeal is a bit simple, but undeniably extremely cute. They look like they’d fly into your hand if you extended it toward them. This same cuteness extends to several other gray birds with big black eyes, such as the Dark-eyed Junco, but the Tufted Titmouse is no doubt the cutest.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s a Black-capped, Carolina or any other kind of Chickadee, these guys are all extremely cute almost to a fault. So much of it is derived from their absolutely miniscule size, and the fact that they have an extremely round body shape—they’re basically little flying puffballs, like a bunch of dust bunnies coalesced into a little creature and took flight. One might expect such a small and fragile-looking bird to be timid, but Chickadees are actually quite bold, inquisitive and adventurous, which just makes them that much more lovable. They’re quite active, and on any given day I can often watch them flying back and forth from our feeders to their perches to feast on one seed after another. Watching one splash its tiny body around in a shallow bird bath is also very amusing.
And finally, arguably my favorite backyard bird visitor, the nuthatch, which comes in a variety of styles such as the White-breasted (pictured above), Red-breasted and Brown-headed (pictured at top) Nuthatch, all quite cute I assure you. Their unique physiology allows them to approach bird feeders in a way totally unlike almost any other backyard visitor, which makes them instantly recognizable … because they’ll be the only bird grabbing seeds while upside down. The nuthatch is capable of gripping and walking vertically down trees in this fashion, and they do the same at bird feeders, where their impressive flexibility lets them grab seeds (or peanuts, they seem to love peanuts) and then continuously carry them away, one at a time, for storage in their lairs. I find their industriousness particularly lovable, as they’ll go back and forth between a nesting spot and the same feeder dozens of times in a row, carrying off one seed or nut at a time. That can-do spirit cements their status as the cutest backyard bird of them all.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and apparently its newest bird correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter for what is usually more drink-focused writing.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can find more of his bird photography on Twitter.