Figuring Out Finches at Your Feeder this Winter

Small, colorful and most with conical bills adapted to seed cracking, finches often make up the bulk of feeder visitors in winter, arriving in flocks that may come and go as a unit as they make the rounds of the neighborhood, or head farther south.

Pine Siskin

Pine siskins are dainty but aggressive cousins of goldfinches, often arriving at feeders in huge flocks in late autumn, and carpeting the ground with streaky gray-brown. Flashes of yellow in the wings and tail are the only color relief. Noisy chatter accompanies the flocks, with a raspy ascending zeeeep! calls and twitters rising over the calls of other birds. With their tiny, pointed bills, pine siskins have trouble cracking even black-oil sunflower seeds, and prefer Nyjer, sunflower chips, and finch seed mixes, though they readily comb the leavings of larger birds for bits of sunflower seeds. Like evening grosbeaks (see below), pine siskins are irregular, or irruptive, migrants, coming south of their northern breeding grounds when tree seed crops dwindle in the North. As their name suggests, these birds breed in pines and other conifers.
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Evening Grosbeak

Evening grosbeaks are distinctive in many ways; their mustard-gold body color, glowing greenish-yellow bills, and nomadic flocking behavior set them apart from other grosbeak species. Normally inhabitants of mixed coniferous forests of the West and far North, evening grosbeaks stage invasions of the East and South, where they may descend in large flocks on backyard bird feeders, sending us in a scramble to restock. Their huge appetites normally satisfied by tree buds, seeds and fruits, evening grosbeaks love to wade in tray or platform feeders stocked with sunflower seeds, bickering crossly bill-to-bill and cutting the winter air with loud clear! calls. The larger the tray or platform, the more attractive it is likely to be to these gregarious birds.
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Purple Finch

Purple finches are shyer, less common, and more beautifully colored than house finches. Once common feeder visitors in winter, purple finches have declined markedly with the rise in house finch populations in the East. Nomadic in winter, purple finches usually travel in pairs or small flocks that may represent family groups. The purple finch’s song is richer, more flowing and somewhat more hurried than the house finch’s. Their flight call is a distinctive, soft pit pit pit, in contrast to the house finch’s loud tweet.

With their heavy bills, purple finches easily crack striped or black-oil sunflower seeds. They enjoy platform, tube or hopper feeders, and prefer to feed above the ground. When spring comes, feeder operators may enjoy a final influx of purple finches before the bulk of the population retreats to its northern breeding grounds. Canada, the northern tier of the U.S. and higher elevations in the eastern and western mountains, host most of the breeding purple finches.
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Common Redpoll

Common redpolls are erratic wanderers that, like evening grosbeaks and pine siskins, sometimes descend in great flocks on feeders far to the south of their breeding range in the Arctic. They might be mistaken for siskins, being dark and brown-streaked overall, but for the satiny crimson beret of the male and their pink breast and square black “beard” around a conical yellow bill. With their tiny bills, redpolls are unable to crack large seed, and appreciate sunflower chips, Nyjer, and small mixed seed. They feed largely on the ground but also use hanging feeders. They are able to survive extreme cold, foraging in undulating flocks over weedy fields, clinging to grass tops where they extract the tiny seeds. Especially if you live in the North, listen for their drawn-out, burry sweeet call note and the junco-like trill of the male.
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American Goldfinch

American goldfinches are feeder patrons across most of the Lower 48 and southern Canada throughout the year. They’re unusual in this subfamily in that they undergo a complete plumage change from summer to winter. Males in summer are brilliant lemon-yellow, with a black beret, black wings and a tail edged with white. Females are olive, with black wings and tail, also edged white. In winter, males resemble the females. Watch the males molt back into bright spring garb, starting in March. By the end of April they will bring dazzling color and twittering song to your backyard.

Goldfinches have a legendary affinity for thistle—or Nyjer—seed and may be attracted to feeders that force them to hang upside-down from perches to obtain it. They also relish black-oil sunflower seed and sunflower chips. Offer seed in tube, hopper, satellite, or platform feeders; there’s no feeder a goldfinch can’t master with its clinging skills and ingenuity. Listen for their distinctive per-chicoree call and watch for their undulating flight.
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House Finch

House finches are one of the most widespread feeder birds nationwide. Hardy and adaptable, house finches were kept as cage birds illegally in the 1940s. Rather than face arrest, pet store operators in the East released their house finches, and the birds, native to western North America, have taken the continent by storm. With their rich, cheery warble and insistent tweeting, house finches serve as a magnet to other, shyer feeder birds. A few house finches at a feeder can attract many other species.

You may have trouble distinguishing house finches from the less common purple finches. As a rule, male house finches have more localized patches of color than male purple finches, which give the impression of being suffused all over by raspberry-red. In house finches, this color varies by season and individual, but is generally more orange-red than the cool purple-red of the purple finch. A good tip is to look at the sides, or flanks. If there are brown streaks on the whitish flanks, you’re probably looking at a house finch. If the reddish color extends onto the back and wings, you probably have a purple finch at your feeder. Though the females appear similar, both being streaky brown, female purple finches are much darker and more heavily streaked than female house finches. Their dark brown streaks contrast strongly with the white ground color, especially around the face.
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Cassin’s Finch

Cassin’s finches are difficult to distinguish from purple and house finches where their ranges overlap in the Rocky Mountains. Paler than purple finches, male Cassin’s finches show a distinct cap that is darker red than the rest of the bird. Cassin’s finches occupy higher-altitude coniferous forests in western North America, but often use feeders, where they prefer sunflower seed. In winter, they can be found in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle, as well. Their loud, warbled song sounds much like those of the house and purple finches, but is more varied in structure than theirs. A distinctive, three-syllabled call note, twiddle-ip, announces their presence. Cassin’s finches stay in flocks most of the year except when nesting.
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Rosy Finches

Rosy finches (black, gray-crowned, and brown-capped) are chunky, sparrowlike birds of western high-mountain tundra. In winter, they descend in sometimes enormous flocks and spread (particularly the gray-crowned) eastward over the Great Plains. Carpeting the snow beneath feeders, these finches eagerly consume blended seed and sunflower chips. Look for overall dark finches with patches of rosy feathers on belly and rump.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch »

Other Goldfinches

Lesser goldfinches (pictured left) visit feeders throughout the Southwest and even southern Washington throughout the year; Lawrence’s goldfinches (pictured right) visit feeders in the far southwest in winter, and are a year-round resident of coastal Southern California.