Finch Findings

This winter’s theme is a “mixed bag” of finch movements.

~Ron Pittaway, Ontario Field Ornithologists

Purple Finch male at feeder 1

Male Purple Finch at feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After seeing the first Purple Finches at my feeder a few weeks ago, I started searching online for some information. I ran across one of those interesting combinations of technology and old-fashioned field observations that seems so common in the birding world – Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast 2014-2015. Winter finches are birds of far northern forests and include Purple Finches, Grosbeaks (Pine and Evening), Redpolls (Common and Hoary), Crossbills (Red and White-winged), and Pine Siskins. What all of these birds have in common is that they are primarily seed eaters, and in the northern forests, the key tree species for them are spruces, birches, and mountain ashes. Ron and his collaborators do extensive surveys every year and assess the status of the seed crop of these tree species and use that to predict southward movements of the various finches. And they are usually spot on…2012-2013 was predicted to be a great finch year down south (and it was), and last year he predicted a poor one due to abundant seed crops. And, indeed, last year, I did not see a single Purple Finch or Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins are small, streaky, finches with a very pointed bill, and hints of yellow on their wings.

So, this year Ron predicts Purple Finches will move south in decent numbers, along with scattered Pine Siskins, but many of the other species will show limited southward movements due to good crops of certain tree seeds. As I write this, there are about a dozen Purple Finches on the feeder outside my window. I have seen one (an odd number as they usually come in small flocks) Pine Siskin thus far this winter. One non-finch species Ron suggests will move south in moderate numbers this year is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, another seed eater.

House Finch male 1

House Finch male

I think many backyard bird-watchers have some difficulty in identifying our finches, especially in separating the more urban-dwelling, year-round resident, House Finch, from the irregular winter visitor, the Purple Finch. House Finches are a common feeder bird in the East after having been released in New York City in 1940 from a stock brought from their native range of the West Coast for the pet trade. They nest and feed in areas near human habitation, but I see more out along the power line some winters, which indicates, they too, probably undergo winter migrations in especially cold weather. Male House Finches have varying amounts of red on their head and back, a red eyebrow, throat, and upper breast, brownish streaks on their sides and belly, and a square or slightly notched tail. The amount of red is variable because it depends on the individual bird’s diet (red pigments in bird feathers come from a class of compounds called carotenoids, found in plants).

Purple Finch male on branch

Purple Finch male

Male Purple Finches are more wine-red on their head, breast, sides, and rump, and have a white belly and strongly notched tail. The famed ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, described the male Purple Finch as looking like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.

House Finch female 1

House Finch female

Females of the two species are a bit more difficult to distinguish. House Finch females have brown upperparts with some streaking, and brownish white underparts with faint brown streaks.

Purple Finch female 3

Purple Finch female

Purple Finch females have brown upperparts, and white underparts that are more boldly streaked with brown. But to me, the most distinctive difference is the bold, white eyebrow stripe on the female Purple Finch (lacking in the female House Finch).

So, here is a little quiz to help you identify those birds you may be seeing at your feeders this winter. Answers will be posted later in the week.

Purple Finch female House Finch male Purple Finch male on pine branch House Finch male 2 Pine Siskin 1

Good luck!









Changing of the Guard

Migrations speak to us, not just as observers of nature but as integral parts of it. The world moves and, deep inside, we long to move with it.   Mike Bergin

Leaf out scene in Piedmont woods

Spring scene in the woods out my door

Spring is truly here. I look out the door and see the rapid changes, the appearance of so many new things. But I can also tell by what is missing…the smell of the smoke from my wood stove, the chill in the morning air, and the dominant feeder birds from the past few months. I was going to post something on this last week to encourage you to watch for their disappearance as the warm weather of the past week moved in. But, I was gone a few days and when I returned, they were all but gone, just like that, as if the pale spring green of leaf-out had sent them packing. It is much easier to document the first arrivals. The last departures do not resonate in my brain as well. One day the birds are here, and a week later I realize I haven’t seen them for awhile. But this changing of the guard is as sure a sign of spring as the growing palette of greens.

Are any of these birds still at your feeders?

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco (click to enlarge)

Purple Finch

Purple Finch male (click to enlarge)

The Juncos, (many people call them Snow Birds) are our classic winter feeder bird although at my feeders they tend to stay mostly on the ground beneath the feeders. Peak abundance in the Piedmont is mid-October to mid-April. They move north or to higher elevations in our mountains to breed. I always enjoy finding their nests along the trails at Mt. Mitchell each summer.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (click to enlarge)

Purple Finches are one of winter finches that tend to vary in abundance from year to year. Roger Tory Peterson described males of this species as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Females are streaky brown with a distinct white eye stripe. Purple Finches are often confused with House Finches, a year-round resident in our area. Purple Finches are far more common out here in the woods.

One of my favorite visitors to the suet feeders is the energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Unlike its cousin, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, this species does not breed in our high mountains but moves to the far northern U.S. and Canada to nest. Male Ruby-crown’s only occasionally show their reddish crown. These tiny birds are easily recognized by their habit of wing flicking.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (click to enlarge)

The only one of these winter birds still at my feeder as of yesterday is the Pine Siskin (although I have not seen one this morning, so they, too, may be gone). They are one of the so-called irruptive species, whose numbers on the wintering grounds can fluctuate greatly from year to year depending on food resources and weather in their northern forest habitats. And this has been an amazing year for siskins – on my Great Backyard Bird Count this past February, I had 62 siskins at once at one feeder. I’m sure there were well over a hundred between all three feeders, but their squabbling and rapid comings and goings made them tough to count. Although they do gulp down the black oil sunflower seeds, siskins are especially fond of thistle seed. My bank account will appreciate the rest once they are gone.

And this week has also brought some members of the new guard – the return of a Brown Thrasher to my garden, the teach, teach, teach song of an Ovenbird down in the woods, and my first Ruby-throated Hummingbird this morning. It has begun…