For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Finches

Original Air Date: Feb. 27, 1987

Winter finches are hard to find overall, but there are pockets where they are crowding into feeders. (3:49) Date verified

Audio missing


Winter Finches

(Recording of a Pine Grosbeak)

A lot of people have been asking me why there are so few birds at their feeders this winter. I get questions like where are all the Pine Siskins? Why doesn’t my feeder have any goldfinches this year? What happened to the crossbills? Why are so few Evening Grosbeaks around?

These species all belong to a group of birds informally called the winter finches, along with redpolls, purple finches, and Pine Grosbeaks. They are loved by Northlanders for their colors–most are marked with either bright yellow or pink plumage, which look especially wonderful during blizzards and then in late winter when the dead brown grass and sooty snow are the most conspicuous outdoor colors. When finches are in town, they usually are at feeders–they all like sunflower seed, and the redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches also like niger seed–also called thistle seed.

The only problem with the winter finches is that they are all irruptive species–that is, they’re extremely unpredictable in their winter ranges. Some years there may be few or even none of them around, and yet other years they’re abundant. They all seem to stay as near to their northern breeding grounds as they can, if there is enough food. When they do move south, they tend to stay in flocks, and so can be abundant in one area and completely absent from another of equally good habitat. This year Evening Grosbeaks are uncommon–even rare–in Duluth, but they’re present in about normal numbers on the South Shore– at least in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Redpolls have been present in the Northland all season, but they waited until the brief cold snap about a month ago to start coming regularly to feeders–now I usually have as many as fifty at my feeder. I don’t know of anyone in the Duluth area who’s been getting goldfinches or crossbills this year, and have heard of only a handful of Pine Siskins all season.

My favorite of all the winter finches is the Pine Grosbeak. The robin-sized adult males are a lovely shade of pinkish-red and gray; females are gray and greenish, and males hatched last year are a distinctive burnt-rust color. Pine Grosbeaks are exceptionally tame for songbirds–they allow very close approach, and some have even been caught in the hand by banders–they breed in the northern wilderness, and so haven’t had to adapt themselves to human enemies. Their song is similar to the Purple Finch’s, but some ornithologists describe it as sweeter and wilder. It has some whistled call notes which aren’t too hard to imitate. During one invasion year when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I could whistle up a Pine Grosbeak any time I went into the woods. But this winter I haven’t had a single Pine Grosbeak at my feeder, although a few have been seen in Duluth and flocks have been visiting feeders in Saginaw and Port Wing. They eat sunflower seed at feeders, and are also fond of berries–especially mountain ash. They’re also seen along roadsides–taking salt.

Most birds give call notes year round, but only sing during spring and summer. Luckily for us, Pine Grosbeaks are one of the few birds that sing year round. Their sweet warble can brighten the dreariest winter day.

(Recording of a Pine Grosbeak)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”