Over the years there have been several changes in the common names of birds, the Marsh Hawk is now the Northern Harrier, Canada Jay became the Gray Jay, I’m not old enough to remember the changes to the falcon family, but they were once called Duck, Pigeon and Sparrow Hawks, my father and his peers still use those names, sending me to Wiki or my antique J.J. Audubon to find out which one he’s talking about.
If you thought it was hard to keep up with the various changes in the common names, try to follow the changes among family, subfamily and genera of these birds. As DNA tests are done, some birds are moved from one group to another, species are being combined into one, split into two, in the case of the Baltimore Oriole, both. (it was combined with the Bullock’s Oriole to form the Northern Oriole, then re-split into it’s original parts), making your lifelist go up and down without ever lifting your binoculars.
This week I want to write about the our winter finch, I was going over in my head the species I’d include. Like many out there I got my start with a Peterson guide, in it there’s a few pages of finch; red finch, yellow finch and blue finch. In my Peterson guide all the birds I was going to talk about fell in this category, a quick check reveled that although ornithologists were busy changing common names they were much more so when it came to changing scientific names and rearranging groups. It makes my head spin and even if I could totally follow along, it would make a pretty boring read.
All this to say I wanted to include the cardinal, as in my old Peterson it’s listed as a “red finch”. It’s actually grouped with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (which makes more sense in french as Cardinal à poitrine rose), Blue Grosbeak and just recently the tanagers, but to keep you on your toes, the Evening Grosbeak and Pine Grosbeak are grouped with the finch.
This has been a banner year for finch at feeders with every member present and accounted for, even the odd Cardinal.
The Evening Grosbeak is still common, it could show up at feeders almost any time of year and there’s been an increase in activity this winter. The males are bright yellow, with black head, tail and wing, the secondary wing feathers are white, they have a bright yellow forehead and eyebrow. The beak is a massive yellow green cone, perfect for cracking seeds and biting the hand of a do-gooder trying to rescue one after a window strike. Being quite familiar, I use the Evening Grosbeak as a standard of measure, “it’s grosbeak sized”, “it’s slightly larger than a grosbeak”. So for those unfamiliar, they’re 8 inches, which doesn’t tell us much unless they’re in your hand or perched beside a ruler, but that makes them about half way between a chickadee and a Blue Jay.
The Pine Grosbeak is our largest finch, slightly larger than an Evening Grosbeak, the males have red head, breast, back and rump, washing out to gray as you go down. The dark wings have two white bars. Females are yellow olive in the places males are red, young males resemble females until their second year when they molt into the red feathers, but some will have a russet plumage prompting reports of three different birds. They usually come to the yard for left over fruit but will also take sunflower seeds at feeders, they are very tame and approachable.
This winter has had an increase in both Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills visiting feeders for sunflower and nyjer seed. The males are red with darker wings, females are olive and first year males may appear to have an orange cast. The White-winged will have more streaking on the flanks and two prominent wing bars, the beak is also smaller than the Red’s.
The coolest feature is the beak, it totally crosses over, like when you cross your fingers, this design is made for spreading the spruce cones and extracting the seeds, a White-winged Crossbill can eat 3000 conifer seeds per day!
I’ve had crossbills at feeders several times and I usually mistake them for Purple Finch at first glance, it’s usually that they don’t fly away when I approach that makes me take a closer look.
Purple Finch are certainly more plentiful in the other three seasons, but the odd ones do decide to stick around for winter. The males are red, and lightly streaked, females are brown resembling a sparrow, but the beak is heavier, she also has quite a distinct light eyebrow, helping distinguish herself from the female House Finch. Mostly dining on sunflower they do take the odd nyjer seed.
House Finch were introduced to eastern United States from western states and Mexico in 1940, captured and caged they were sold in pet shops as “Hollywood Finch”. To avoid charges under the migratory bird act, owners simply released the birds, since then they spread across much of the eastern continent. All the House Finch in the east can trace their ancestry back to these relatively few released birds, the result of the inbreeding may have made them more susceptible to the eye disease Mycoplasma gallisepticum or House Finch Conjunctivitis. Although it has been found in other species it is predominant in House Finch.
The males have varying degrees of red, depending on the diet, some males may even appear orange. Females are brown and both sexes are more heavily streaked than the Purple Finch. Both these species are the same size and with the variations in the House Finch, it sometimes makes it tricky to tell them apart.
Next week, the four smallest winter finch species (that’ll make 10, even without the cardinal!)