Winter Finches


(This 873rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 16, 2007.)


White-winged and Red Crossbills

Painting by Major Allan Brooks


This winter may turn out to be a good year for bird watching. Early reports suggest that substantial numbers of so-called winter finches may retreat to this region from northern boreal forests.


Among these visiting land birds are a number of species that most of us rarely see: evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, common redpolls, hoary redpolls, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills. Bohemian waxwings are often included in this category although they aren't finches.


Why do they come? Your guess is as good as mine. They may be driven south by a poor cone crop in the far north providing too little food or the birds may have been too successful in raising young and the surplus must move south. Perhaps both of these reasons come into play.


Some suggest that these birds have a sixth sense that tells them that bad winters are coming: sort of a Farmer's Almanac precognition. I consider this nonsense and the evidence supports my view. Often incursion year weather in the north is no more severe than usual.


In recent years very few of these birds have appeared here but during some past winters they turned up in large numbers. I recall, for example, one year when pine siskins -- goldfinch-sized birds that are streaked brown and black like sparrows -- were everywhere in the Rochester neighborhood where I lived.


At the time I was a beginning birder and I had never seen this species before. I noted key field marks -- some yellow in the wings and a high pitched "shreeee" call -- but I couldn't believe that I was seeing so many of these rare birds. Finally more experienced friends explained to me that I was indeed seeing pine siskins and that they had arrived that year in unusual numbers. I have birded for almost seventy years since then and have never again observed that many.


Another bird that has occasionally been common at feeders in winter is the evening grosbeak. This starling-sized, yellow, black and white bird boasts -- as its name implies -- a thick bill. Some people describe it as looking like a giant goldfinch. At first welcomed to feeders, these birds soon become a nuisance, eating bushels of their favorite sunflower seeds.


In recent years, however, evening grosbeak numbers have declined severely even on their breeding grounds in the forests of the Adirondacks and Canada. In the 1990s as many as 2500 were recorded on local Christmas Counts, but lately their numbers have seldom reached more than a few dozen and last year only one was found in western New York.


Statewide the situation has been just as bad. In 1988, Christmas Count birders reported almost 13,000 evening grosbeaks, recording them in 52 count circles. Last year only 38 were found on six counts, including those in the Adirondacks.


Two of our visitors from the north, the crossbills, are quite unusual. They are appropriately named because their upper and lower mandibles (beaks) cross. This makes them look like mutants, but those bills have a most useful function. The birds use them to feed on pinecones, their unique bills prying the scales apart so their tongue can get at the seeds.

File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Male White-winged Crossbill with House Finches in a bird bath

Photo by Betsy Potter


A few weeks ago Betsy Potter looked out the window of her Lake Ontario shoreline home and was surprised to find among the house finches at her feeder a male white-winged crossbill. The bird stayed for some time and it or another male appeared several days later. So at least a few of these strange-looking birds may be in the area. One problem in observing them: that crossed bill is not easy to see unless you have keener eyes than I do.


The even less common red crossbill is posing serious problems for ornithological systematists. Genetic studies suggest that the current species should be divided into seven or more distinct species -- not just subspecies but full species. Unfortunately, like the alder and willow flycatchers, these proposed species are very difficult to separate in the field, their brief calls providing the best clue. The red crossbills that appear in this region are Type 2.


If any of these birds appear at your feeders, please let me know.-- Gerry Rising