Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: The winter birds are here!

Every year, as the cold weather approaches, sports fans tend to huddle together and ask the same questions. Will my team have a good year? Will we win the Stanley Cup? Will we make it to the Super Bowl? Entire industries are built around speculation of the possible answers to such questions.

Meanwhile, in the quieter corners of our society, the birders gather with their own questions to ponder. Will there be a lot of snow? Will it be very cold? Will the birds of the north make their way down to our area? I doubt there is any way that anyone can really answer any of these questions with tremendous accuracy, but their speculation generates just as much buzz. The experts chime in, the veterans add their own opinions to the mix and we take it all in and ruminate while the answers make themselves known in their own good time.

All birders have their networks for gaining information and I rely heavily on John and Merry Cushing for mine. I’ve known these wonderful people since childhood and their interest in birds has given us a way to stay connected into my adulthood. Every fall, the intelligence is gathered, sifted, and scrutinized and the choicest bits of information are then forwarded to the members of our inner circle. This year, Merry sent word that the winter birds would be abundant.

Sometimes even the best intelligence turns out to be wrong. Other times, it turns out to be dead on. Rumblings about the possible lack of a professional hockey season seemed insane a few months ago, but insanity leaked into reality and it has come to pass. The conjecture surrounding the winter birds is usually similar in its likelihood, but that, too, has materialized. The winter birds are here!

Now, when I say “winter birds,” I am referring to a special group of species that tend to stick to areas further north. Pine siskins, common redpolls, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks and crossbills are all lumped together in an amorphous group called the “irruptive finches.” Other species, like red-breasted nuthatches, are lumped into this group even though they are not finches at all.

The commonality that ties this disparate group together is their source of winter food. The trees of the northern areas are all subject to the same weather patterns and their ability to produce seeds and nuts is always a variable. This year, there has been a general failure to produce sufficient quantities of pine cones, birch catkins and the like to keep everyone well fed, so the birds are going to have to scramble to find food. As a result, anyone in the habit of providing food is probably in for quite a show.

It is not yet December and I have already seen three of the irruptive species at my feeders: siskins, redpolls and red-breasted nuthatches. My mother has informed me that she has evening grosbeaks for the first time in decades and my brother (who lives in Maine) has been out looking for pine grosbeaks and crossbills.

It has been a while since I talked about most of these species, so I thought it might be nice to close out the year with a review of their similarities and differences with some of our more familiar local species. Since I saw the pine siskins at my feeders first this year, I will start with them. More will follow on the other birds as I can collect photos of them.

The pine siskin (Carduelis pinus) is the same exact size as an American goldfinch (C. tristis). Both species have a body length of 5 inches and a wingspan of 9 inches. They are also both similar in the sense that they both sport yellow feathers. The fact that siskins outweigh goldfinches by almost a tenth of an ounce is not easily seen until you notice that siskins routinely best goldfinches in contests for the best perches on a feeder.

American goldfinches are plump little birds that have black wings with striking white markings. The color of their feathers can vary from yellow to olive-brown, but they always present with large areas of solid colors. At this time of year, there are none of the bright-yellow males to be seen. Instead, the birds have all switched over to a more drab costume of mustard yellows and browns for the winter.

Pine siskins, on the other hand, are covered in streaks from head to toe. The palette of their plumage draws heavily on gray and black, but there are splashes of yellow on wings and tail that can be a real giveaway if the birds extend their wings or flare their tails.

The streaky appearance of the pine siskin is actually enough to cause some confusion with another of our reliable local species, the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). Both have a similar costume of light background feathers with darker streaks, but the male house finches are covered in red feathers, which makes their identification easy. It is the female house finches that might present a problem due to the lack of any additional colors.

When you look at the two species side by side, the differences are subtle, but easy to spot. The feathers of the house finch are generally lighter in appearance. House finch feathers tend to fall into the brown category while pine siskin feathers are more extreme, with the lighter feathers approaching white and the darker feathers approaching black.

A closer look will also reveal that the beak of the house finch is a little rounder and plumper in appearance, while the beak of the siskin is sharper and more acute. On more than one occasion I have looked out at my feeder and seen an odd-looking house finch only to take a second look and discover that siskins have paid me a visit.

Siskins spend a great deal of time looking for seeds from alder and birch trees. Their sharply-pointed beaks are like little needle-nosed pliers for wheedling seeds out of tight spaces. In “normal” years, you may find a few siskins mixed in with the local goldfinches, but in irruptive years you can find yourself inundated with flocks numbering in the hundreds.

They are particularly fond of thistle seed and sunflower hearts, but they will generally take anything you have to offer. Back in the end of October, I spotted my first siskin of the season. By the beginning of November, I had a flock of about 45 siskins at my feeders and then the next day they were gone. I imagine they are taking advantage of the nice weather to scout out the area and find all the best spots. In years of major irruptions, siskins have been seen as far south as Florida, so it is also possible that they have just moved on.

In addition to being exciting visitors from the north, siskins are also quite tolerant of people. I hate to use the word “tame” when speaking of a wild bird, but they are really quite approachable if you are gentle in your movements. At times, you have to almost chase the siskins away from a feeder in order to add more seeds.

If you have feeders set up close to a window and a pair of binoculars at the ready, then be sure to keep an eye out for pine siskins. They definitely have a “here today, gone tomorrow” sort of attitude to life, but when they are here they are great fun to watch. I’ll be back next week with a look at another species that has irrupted into our area. In the meantime take care and happy birding.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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