For the Birds Radio Program: Winter Finches

Original Air Date: Nov. 21, 1997

This is a year when many Northland feeders abound with finches. Who are these winter birds and why are they here? 4:00 (The transcript seems to match everything for this placeholder)

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Winter finches—goldfinches, siskins, redpolls, crossbills, and pine and evening grosbeaks—have been appearing at feeders throughout the northland already this winter. One of the great mysteries in the world of birds is why these northern visitors are virtually impossible to find some years and seemingly everywhere others. They may be here today and gone tomorrow, but this will probably be a winter when many of us get to enjoy them. Most of the time when they appear, we notice a good pine and/or spruce cone crop, but some years when food is abundant, the finches are still hard to find.

True winter finches make up their own family, called Fringillidae, which is only distantly related to birds that look similar. Despite their appearance, pine grosbeaks aren’t related to rose­ breasted grosbeaks or cardinals at all, and siskins and redpolls aren’t related to sparrows.

True finches have several unique adaptations that separate them from all other songbirds. Many eat seeds clinging to tree branches high above the snow line, allowing them to find food regardless of weather, at least during years when the seed crop is good. When food is abundant some finches even start breeding during winter, and so baby finches feather out quickly and densely. Virtually all North American songbirds feed their babies insects, regardless of what the adult diet will be, to give the growing babies enough protein, so most birds nest only during months when insects are active. But since most true finches feed their babies regurgitated seeds, their nesting season isn’t restricted by temperature. Winter finches are also unusually gregarious, and many of them defend only a minute territory.

Living up to their name, winter finches are extraordinarily hardy. Tiny redpolls can survive colder temperatures than any other songbirds, including ravens! In laboratories, they’ve endured temperatures approaching 60 below zero without succumbing, though they burrow under snow for shelter from the severest temperatures and winds.

Some of these birds of the far north, where there are few natural enemies, become unusually tame. The first pine grosbeak I ever saw, in an urban park in Madison, Wi, was tame enough to alight on my finger when I whistled to it. And pine siskins often learn to take seeds from the hands of people. When a Massachusetts bird fancier slept late, a flock of siskins would actually enter his bedroom through an open window and tug at his hair or tweak his ear, according to the National Geographic book, “Song and Garden Birds of North America.” Once when he tried to bury his head under the blankets, a siskin even explored the blankets and nipped him on his nose. Imagine having such an effective natural alarm clock!!

Winter finches abound in social graces and also in lovely plumage. Shades of red are especially beautifully represented in this family, including the “royal purple’‘ wine color of the so-called purple finch, the more orangy red of the house finch and red crossbill, the rich yet soft pink of pine grosbeaks, the bolder pink of the white-winged crossbill, and the glittering ruby forehead of the redpoll. Winter goldfinches are much softer yellow in winter than in spring, but the bold sunny yellow of male evening grosbeaks is intense enough to warm us more than the wimpy winter sun. These birds exude warmth and beauty. Long may they live!