Finches at Your Feeders, a Winter Treat
One of the best things about feeding birds in the winter time is the possibility of attracting large numbers of finches. Hints of yellow, pink and red brightening up your yard which by now is either all brown, all white, or some mixture of the two. And if the temperatures allow an open window, or if you spend a little time outside near the feeders, they make a lot of enjoyable little call notes.
Finches can make up the majority of birds at most winter bird feeding stations. There are some species that are common to approaching over abundant most winters, and there are many other species that are a rare treat to see mixed in. With finches being so willing to attend feeding stations, it is a good idea to have their favorite foods around, and the best things you can offer up are black oil sunflower seed and niger thistle seed. Here are some finch species that you may see at your feeders in the winter time.American Goldfinch – By far the most abundant finch that attends feeders across the state, this species shows up at nearly all feeders whether in town or in the country. While “drabber” in the winter, as the winter progresses toward spring, you will start to see the black caps and bright yellows of males show up over time. An active feeding station in a good location will literally have hundreds of individuals of this species hanging around your yard.
House Finch – While this species is present statewide in the winter, some locations will have more than others, and they also seem to find feeders in just about any setting. Males typically have a reddish coloration on their head, throat, breast and “rump” and gray streaks on a whitish abdomen. Some males will have the red replaced with other colors like orange, apricot, yellow or even white. Females are gray-brown overall with a plain looking head that lacks eyestripes/eyelines and have somewhat blurry streaks on a grayish overall breast and abdomen (pay attention to descriptions of females in following species). It isn’t unusual to see a few to a few dozen of this species at active feeding stations.
Purple Finch* – Definitely not as common as House Finches are, but they can occur statewide with them being found most winters and with more of them around in some winters. This species may often go overlooked at stations with large numbers of House Finches. Males of this species have a more “wine” or “purplish-red” coloration than the House Finch males. The reddish coloration is also more extensive, covering most if not all of the head, the upper back and rump, parts of the wings, plus the others areas where House Finch males have red. They also lack the gray streaks on the abdomen. Female Purple Finches have bold, dark streaks on an overall whitish breast and abdomen. They also have a distinctive facial pattern with a white stripe showing above the eye. This species typically seems to show up in small numbers at feeding stations, often only a single bird to 4 or 5 birds.
Cassin’s Finch* – A fairly regular winter finch species in the Panhandle that may occur in maybe the west half of the state, but again they are likely to be overlooked when with House Finches. Males have a bright red crown of the head, contrasting with a rosy-pink breast and throat and rump. They lack the streaks on most of the abdomen, but may show some very fine streaks on the flanks. Females of this species have very fine and sparse, dark streaks on an otherwise whitish breast and abdomen and show some hints of a facial pattern but not as pronounced as Purple Finch females. Close examination (often in photos) of the bill of a Cassin’s Finch will show a straight culmen (basically a straight line between the top and bottom halves of the beak) which contrasts from the curved culmens of the House and Purple Finches.
Pine Siskin – Overall probably the third most common feeder finch species on average. They are somewhat unpredictable in their wintering habits though, some years being very rare in “the plains” and other years they are quite abundant. When present, their call note, a rough, rising zhreeeeeee is often the first way that birders know they are around. They are about the same size as American Goldfinches but for the most part lack the yellow coloration, other than their wingbars. They are brownish overall with lots of streaking on the breast and abdomen. A very thin, pointy beak is also a tip off. An active feeding station may have dozens or more in some years, a few in some years, and none in other years.
Common Redpoll – Despite the “common” in their name, they are far from that here in Nebraska. In some winters they are reported in fair numbers in many locations across the state but in other winters there are zero reports statewide. They seem to prefer open landscapes with sunflowers and other weed seeds to feed on, so not surprisingly most of the records at bird feeders seem to happen in more rural settings. Most sightings of this species actually occur in grassland and cropland areas in patches of sunflowers. Males and females of this species are largely similar, with a grayish-white overall coloration with fairly bold and dark streaking on the sides of the breast and abdomen areas. Both males and females can have red on top of the head and black by the eyes and on the throat, but the male will have extensive pinkish to deep pinkish coloration on the breast.
Hoary Redpoll* – In years when Common Redpolls are more common, we also get a few Hoary Redpolls mixed in at times. This species is very “whitish” overall with fine streaking, but can be tough to differentiate from Common Redpolls. They also appear to have a “shorter, stubbier beak”. There is actually debate going on in the Ornithological world whether Hoary and Common are separate species or just gradients of one species.Red Crossbill – This may be the fourth most common finch at feeders in Nebraska, but most years they are pretty limited in where they can be found. From north central Nebraska west, including much of the Panhandle, they can be a pretty regular visitor to feeding stations where they seem fond of black oil sunflower seed. Close inspection of their beak will show where their name comes from as the top half of the beak curves to the right and downward while the bottom half curves to the left and upward, giving them a “crossed” bill. These bills are perfect for extracting pine seeds out of pine cones, so not surprisingly most sightings of this species are in or near pines or related trees. Males are red pretty much everywhere except for the wings and the tail. Females are sort of “olive green” to “dingy yellow” where the males are red. There are many identified populations of this species, each of which varies from others in bill shape to some degree (each has a preferred tree species whose seeds they feed upon) and also in call notes. The most common one in Nebraska seems to be the “Ponderosa Pine” population, whose call notes can best be described as “choop choop”.
White-winged Crossbill* – Much less common than the Red Crossbill, their males are overall similar looking with the exception of two white wing bars that are easily viewable in flight or while perched. Female White-winged Crossbills are not as colorful as Female Red Crossbills, and have visible streaking on their breast and abdomen. Most sightings of this species occur in cemeteries and other locations with large numbers of Spruce trees, which is one of their preferred food sources.Evening Grosbeak* – A very unpredictable species that can show up about anywhere at feeders, but doesn’t seem to ever be common anywhere in the state. When they show up, you will not miss them. They are much larger than the other finches and have a disproportionately large grayish or yellowish bill. Males have bright yellow eyelines, abdomens and backs, with large white patches in the wings and black head, wings and tail. Females are less dramatic in their plumage, being grayish overall, but still have the massive bill and white patches in their wings. This one is a real treat to see at your feeders.
Pine Grosbeak* – Another very unpredictable species, and seems to be rarer than Evening Grosbeak. Once again they are larger than the other finches. Coloration of both males and females is grayish overall, with subtle but noticeable white wing bars. Females have a hint of olive green on the head, back and rump, while males are reddish in those locations, potentially including the breast and abdomen in some males. They beaks are short and curved. Another true treat if they would show up at your feeders.
Even rarer finches* – I will lump these together because for most of us, we are unlikely to see these….but you just never know. Brambling, Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, Brown-capped Rosy-finch and Black Rosy-finch all could potentially be found in Nebraska in the winter. The Brambling is an Asian finch species that is considered rare to show up in Alaska, so the one that was found in Nebraska a couple winters ago was a BIG surprise. The rosy-finches are Rocky Mountain breeders that can be found in Nebraska, with most records in the Panhandle, and typically far from any bird feeders.
Now if you noticed, there are asterisks (*) by some of the species names above. These are species that many birders have not seen and would like to. So if you THINK or KNOW that you have one of these species – share it with us and let us know if you wouldn’t mind sharing it with others!
Winter won’t last forever…in the meantime, spend some time watching your feeders, or the neighbors feeders, or feeders at a nature center, or just get out and check weed patches, pine trees and spruce trees while looking for finches. Brightening up your dreary, cold winter days with these colorful little birds will be time well spent.
Biologist, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission