Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter Finch Forecasts Remind Us to Prepare Our Feeders
October 16, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     If you haven’t thought about readying your feeders for winter, now is the time. Bob and Bonnie Buxton of Merrimac have already had a small flock of evening grosbeaks at their sunflower feeders in Merrimac! These beautiful gold and black birds with flashes of white in the wings use to invade Massachusetts in large numbers years ago, but they have been mostly absent in the past couple of decades. This has been due, in part, to a lower supplies of spruce budworms in eastern Canada and their range has shifted west somewhat.

     The remaining population also feeds on maple (box elder) seeds and, if they irrupt into our area this winter, they will clean out sunflower feeders in no time. Back in the seventies, large flocks of evening grosbeaks would wake me in the morning and clean out all my tray feeders of sunflower, almost before I could get out of bed and enjoy watching these regal-looking birds! It would be great if we could see them more frequently again in our area.

     The winter finch forecast from Canada has been issued and bases it predictions on the food supply for those winter birds. Depending on the species and what it prefers to eat, the lack of that food supply up north, in any particular year, will cause that species to move further south in search of food. Thus, in what we call “good winter finch years,” more grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls, siskins, and purples finches move south into our area to feed. In the same manner, we might also see an influx of blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches and bohemian waxwings in certain years.

     The forecasts don’t see much movement for red or white-winged crossbills or for pine siskins this year. Food supplies are adequate in the boreal forests for these birds. Though the pine siskins may not be joining the goldfinches at the thistle feeders, this winter, they do expect redpolls to irrupt into our area. The redpolls love thistle, so look for these frosty little birds mixed in with your goldfinches at your feeders this year.

     Purple finches are expected to migrate south and may join your chickadees, titmice and nuthatches at your sunflower feeders. The raspberry color of the males distinguishes them from the more common male house finches that we commonly see at the sunflower and thistle feeders. The male house finch is slashed with red or orange on the face, chest, and rump. The male purple finch looks like it has been dipped in raspberry jam and is quite stunning. The female purple finches are much more boldly striped on the head and lack the stripes on the belly that the female house finches display.

     Pine grosbeaks are expected to stay north this year due to a good crop of mountain ash in Canada. They don’t usually visit feeders when they do arrive here, but rather feed on ash seeds or on berries. Bohemian waxwings have similar diets and also are not expected to travel into Massachusetts with plenty of food available in Canada.

     Another bird that does frequent feeders is the red-breasted nuthatch, cute cousin of our resident white-breasted nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch is expected to move south in good numbers this year and quite a few have been seen on Plum Island and at area feeders. Look for them on your sunflower feeders and on your suet.

     Not everyone enjoys blue jays (I do), but the spotty availability of acorns and other nuts up north, combined with a bumper crop of acorns here, will draw more of them into Massachusetts this winter. They love sunflower and peanuts, so they may be showing up more often at your feeders this winter.

     So in preparation for all these beautiful birds that may visit this winter, you want to be sure to have sunflower, thistle and suet out and ready for them. These birds will supplement our resident gems, such as the cardinals, chickadees and goldfinches, that will entertain us all winter long. You, too, may be lucky enough to be invaded by a flock of evening grosbeaks!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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