BirdWatching Column: Finches in the Vanguard

Published on April 15, 2012 by BirdWatching


[HED] Finches in the vanguard

[DECK] How the redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches of winter announce that spring is on its way - o r - How redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches announce that spring is on its way

[493/491 WORDS] By the first of March, those of us in the North hungrily search for the vanguards of spring. I know it¹s easy to feel discouraged when robins are nowhere to be seen while redpolls, siskins, and other winter finches remain abundant, but look again. I’ve found that the birds most associated with winter provide fun observations and proof that spring is on its way as well.

Redpolls. Longer days rev up birds¹ hormonal levels. Throughout March, redpolls grow increasingly restless. If you¹re lucky enough to have visiting flocks just before they start heading back to the taiga, you may observe a spurt in squabbling. Redpolls are extremely sociable, apparently defending only enough personal space to ensure that they can spread their wings to take off in a hurry without colliding. They don¹t seem to defend a territory even when nesting. But in early spring, females suddenly grow more aggressive toward males as part of their process of mate selection. A potential mate may appease an attacking female by feeding her.

Redpoll courtship feeding usually begins on the breeding grounds, but sometimes you can witness a few exchanges of food even on the bird’s wintering range late in the season. I¹ve seen the behavior several times in March and April in my backyard birch tree, and once or twice at a sunflower seed feeder. It¹s worth watching for.

Siskins. In March, Pine Siskins produce more and more long, ascending zhreeeeet calls, and spruce trees seem to come alive with their twittering and buzzing. In good invasion years, some pairs may remain as far south as Illinois and Missouri to breed. If you¹re hearing a lot of their buzzy calls and seeing them feeding one another, you might get to observe nesting. I¹ve found two nests in Madison, Wisconsin, and one in Lansing, Michigan, each below my eye level in a young spruce tree. I found each nest in late March or April after watching a male singing exuberantly.

Other finches. American Goldfinches are among the last songbirds to breed each year, but adult males start molting into their brilliant spring plumage in late March. For a few weeks, their patchwork of bright and dull feathers is better assurance of coming warmth than the mixed signals we get from weather forecasters.

How to feed. Nyjer and sunflower are the best seeds to offer all of these small finches. They¹ll use just about any feeder. Normally you don¹t have to worry about squirrels or other birds raiding thistle socks or tube feeders with tiny feeding ports designed for finches. Finches also pick through seeds on the ground.

Finches are very attracted to grit, which provides essential minerals and helps their gizzard grind down seeds. Finches, grosbeaks, and crossbills often visit my children¹s sandbox to take grains of sand for this purpose, and they take bits of crushed eggshells, which I set on a couple of my platform feeders. Healthy finches make for happy birdwatching.

[BIO] Laura Erickson writes and produces the radio segment and podcast “For the Birds.” She is author of Twelve Owls, The Bird Watching Answer Book, and 101 Ways to Help Birds. She was a licensed bird rehabilitator for many years. You can find more of her writing about backyard birds on our blog.

[PULL-QUOTE] “Goldfinches’ patchwork of bright and dull feathers is better assurance of coming warmth than the mixed signals we get from weather forecasters.”

[SIDEBAR - A] Keeping feeders clean

Little finches associate in large flocks, often picking up bits of seeds that were dropped by one another and by larger birds, so a single sick bird¹s germs can spread to other birds quickly. As snow recedes, wet soil and decomposing seeds can foster salmonella bacteria, increasing the danger. Shoveling or raking up old seeds as weather permits can provide insurance against outbreaks. Also, if you use tube feeders, make sure that wet seed isn¹t collecting in a mushy mess at the bottom.

[SIDEBAR - B] Fun with Evening Grosbeaks

If you¹re lucky enough to get Evening Grosbeaks in late winter, check out their beak color. Rising hormone levels in late winter start causing the beaks of breeding adults to change from the normal chalky yellowish-white to grass green. As bill color changes, you may see some birds solicit food from potential mates.

Siskins and redpolls seem to be attracted to Evening Grosbeaks, which drop sizeable particles of seeds while cracking them open. Although grosbeaks can be very aggressive toward competitors, they often tolerate these little guys picking up their leavings.