Until you get to know them, the Pine Siskin seems like an ordinary little brown bird, it often gets mistaken for a sparrow and female of immature Goldfinch. Watch them for a while though and you’ll see that they “act” more like a finch than a sparrow, quite acrobatic, they can hang up-side-down off a feeder perch or tree limb to get seeds. Although they will go to the ground for dropped seeds, they don’t scratch around like a sparrow would. Also, as the old saying goes, you can judge a bird by the company it keeps, when they show up at feeders they are often traveling with other finch, which is likely why people mistake them for Goldfinch or even a “baby” Purple Finch. Both sexes have heavy brown streaks, but the male has more yellow showing between and a yellow wing bar.
They’re the same size as the Goldfinch, but if you take a closer look at the beak, it’s much finer. Don’t underestimate it though, although they appreciate nyjer and hulled sunflower seeds, they have absolutely no trouble cracking a black oil sunflower seed and extracting the meat. Good news if you’re on a budget, you don’t need to buy enough nyjer feeders so everyone gets a place setting at the buffet, they’re quite happy with the small sunflower and if you have extra guests drop by for a while, it won’t break the bank to spread a little extra on a platform feeder or even on the ground.
This very friendly year round resident in New Brunswick, is welcome at my feeder whenever they pass through. They aren’t very afraid of people, you can usually get very close before they take flight. Several times I’ve been startled when I lifted the feeder and one flew off, usually only doing a short loop and landing on the hanger to wait for me to finish refilling. Sometimes when I’m feeling extra patient, I’ll get them to eat from my hand and I’ve offered a finger to fledglings and had them perch a while.
They seem to love the window feeder, very few activities inside the house scare them off, even our great indoor hunter cat pouncing at the glass doesn’t always flush them.
The American Goldfinch is another year round finch, although it’s got a lot of people fooled, it’s hard to believe that half the olive drab birds coming to the feeder right now are going to be day-glow yellow in a couple months. Goldfinch molt twice a year, we’ve almost made it to their late winter molt, first we’ll try to imagine that guy looks a little brighter, hoping it means spring is around the corner. When in fact it has no bearing on warmer weather at all, the molt is triggered by lengthening daylight, so even if we still have snow in May, and we likely will, the Goldfinch will be bright yellow. Then we’ll see some real scruffy looking dudes, half in and half out of winter plumage. Sometimes this is a gradual thing that you see coming, other years it coincides with a bunch of smarter finch, who spent the winter a bit farther south, returning or passing through on the way even farther north. (The feathers didn’t pop overnight.)
Strict vegetarians (even vegans I suppose?), these guys won’t be found on the suet feeder, unless the cakes are laced with seed. I don’t even see them on the cakes containing black oil sunflower, but have in the past seen them on suet with hulled sunflower. I’ve read that the fat makes the seeds slippery and hard for some birds to open, so they favour the feeder tubes. These are the finch that nest really late, they wait for the thistle and milkweed to mature, using the fibers for nests and the feed the seed to the young. A bit of Goldfinch trivia… unlike most birds, they even raise their young vegan, a Brown-headed Cowbird chick hatched in their nest won’t survive past a few days on the total seed diet. (Cowbirds are the ones who don’t make nests of their own, rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.)
Watch for them in winter traveling in mixed finch flocks, there undulating flight and calls make them easy to pick out.
The Common Redpoll is finally making appearances at most bird feeders. I read this would be a good year and since they usually come south every other year, it was an easy prediction to agree with. And the were around earlier, but until the snow got dumped there was plenty of wild seeds available. I saw and heard them in the woods, on birch, tamarack and aspen trees, as well as the many weed and flower seeds still not buried.
Streaked heavily with brown backs, these guys resemble the Pine Siskin, that is until a brightly dressed male turns around and you see the pink breast, bright red head and black bib. They too call in flight and when perched in the top of trees, they’ll readily mix with the other smaller finch to give a great spring-like concert on a winter day.
They’ll be leaving us soon, they don’t nest in New Brunswick, but if the pattern holds true, they’ll be back in two years to take advantage of our hospitality.
The Hoary Redpoll is similar to the Common Redpoll, it’s slightly larger, lighter, less streaked and has white over the rump. The beak is also shorter and more stout. Males stand out but the females and immature may require a little more study. In years redpolls come south there’s usually a few Hoary around, but they are greatly outnumbered by their cousin. They likely just find New Brunswick winters too warm, they’re more at home in the Arctic, in even bleaker conditions than the Common Redpoll. They have extra fluffy feathers, and are feathered in areas other birds aren’t, if they get too warm, they actually pluck a few to cool off. They grow back in a few days, which is a good thing in case the temperature drops.