Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

More winter finches visiting area feeders
November 10, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Last week, I talked about the irruptive species of winter finches that is starting to be seen in our area. Reports keep coming in that more grosbeaks, crossbills, siskins and redpolls are being seen. It appears that this is a bad year for the tree seed crops in Canada, and more of these birds have left Canada and some are moving into central and southern New England in search of food. So I thought that it would be appropriate for me to elaborate a little more on these birds that could very well show up at your feeders, maybe for the first time, this winter.

     Evening grosbeaks, the most regal of these birds in their yellow, black and white attire, used to visit our area with some regularity back in the ’60s and ’70s. But as the spruce bugworm outbreak in our northern forests subsided (which the grosbeaks ate, and fed to their young), their breeding populations withdrew from northern New England and eastern Canada and retreated farther west. They have slowly inched their way east again, but it is their winter diet of pine seeds, and the lack thereof in Canada this year, that is driving them back to our area in search of food. At feeders, these birds eat sunflower seed with their large, thick bills – and lots of it! Platform feeders or trays are their preference, as these are starling-sized birds. You should keep an eye out for these birds at any of your feeders that accommodate a cardinal.

     Evening grosbeaks often travel in flocks, and they can be quite noisy. Back in the ’70s, they would awaken me in the early morning with their noisy chatter at the bird feeders. By the time I would finish my first cup of coffee, they would have cleaned out all the sunflower feeders and would be on their way!

     Their cousins, the pine grosbeak, have pinkish red coloring on the head, chest and rump. The females are a duller russet-yellow color. They have much smaller bills and are most often seen eating berries and crab apples. But they, too, might visit a sunflower feeder for handouts. Much more irregular in this area, more pine grosbeaks have been seen already this year than I can remember in a very long time.

     Other visitors to your sunflower feeder might include the crossbills. There are two species, the red crossbill, which is brick red in color and has dark wings and tail. The white-winged crossbill is more pinkish rose color with white wing bars on a dark wing. The females of both species are dull yellow-orange. But both species have crossed bills, that is, the upper mandible crosses over the lower mandible. This adaptation enables these birds to pry open pine cones more easily to extract the seeds. If they visit your sunflower feeder, it will give you the opportunity to watch these unique birds up close.

     Purple finches, although regular visitors and even residents in our area, are also becoming more prevalent this season. Not to be confused with house finches that are red on their heads, chest and rump, purple finches look like they have been dipped in raspberry. The female and young male purple finches are brown with bold stripes on their head, unlike the fine streaking of the female house finches. These birds also eat fruit in season, but they are seed eaters and they enjoy sunflower. These are sparrow-sized birds that will dine at your tube feeder.

     Don’t forget that your goldfinches have all turned to their dull olive-green winter plumage and will continue to spend the winter at your sunflower and thistle feeders. Also visiting sunflower (especially hulled sunflower), but more frequently joining the goldfinches at your thistle feeders, are the pine siskins. These birds are the same size as goldfinches, but are brown striped all over, and they have prominent light wingbars. They often have yellow in the wings and tail, with some siskins showing more yellow than others. There can often be one of more siskins mixing it up with a flock of goldfinches.

     As you watch your thistle feeder, you won’t help but notice if a redpoll shows up. The common redpoll is goldfinch size or a bit smaller, very light in color, with black around the bill and a distinct red patch on the forehead. In the field, these birds are often seen in flocks feeding on weeds or, more often on the seeds of white and yellow birch, or on aspens. But they often flock to thistle feeders as well. The more rare hoary redpoll is similar, but it is very “frosty” white all over, and one could be mixed in with a flock of common redpolls. These are the winter finches that could make watching your feeders that much more special this year.

     But joy will also come from the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and woodpeckers that are regular visitors. Still, be sure to check these birds carefully. If a chestnut-brown chickadee with a brown cap shows up with your usual black-capped chickadees, you’ll be blessed with a visit from a boreal chickadee, which also surprises us in winter. Feeders in Newbury, Rowley and Ipswich have enjoyed visits from these cute birds in recent years. So even your “regular” feeder visitors should be checked out carefully!

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