Things are looking up for those of us who look forward to winters when boreal finches come south in relatively large numbers in search of food. This is an irruption year for winter finches in the East due to the poor cone and birch seed production in northern Ontario and Quebec. Seed-eating birds such as finches, grosbeaks, redpolls and siskins will be frequenting our feeders.
Even at this early date, Evening Grosbeak sightings are up noticeably. Pine Grosbeaks will be taking advantage of good Mountain-ash berry and cone production in New England. Purple Finch numbers should also be healthy this winter. While Red Crossbills sightings may be scarce, White-winged Crossbills sightings may well be up due to the poor cone crops in the eastern boreal forest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls should be numerous this winter due to poor crops of birch, alder and conifer seeds further north.
In addition to these finches, large numbers of Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings are predicted due to poor nut, conifer seed and berry crops, respectively, further north. (Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, 2018-2019, http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm ) (Photo: Common Redpoll)
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Purple Finches feed mainly on seeds, buds, blossoms, nectar, tree fruits and occasionally insects. In winter, when they are mainly eating seeds, nuts and fruits, they use their beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract nuts. In the summer, when feeding on nectar, Purple Finches use their beak to crush the calyx at the flower’s base and extract the nectar with their tongue, leaving the upper flower parts undamaged.
Other random facts regarding the Purple Finch’s eating habits include following: Research shows that Purple Finches weighed in the early morning increased their body weight by 3.5 grams (13.5%) when re-weighed in the afternoon. Carotenoid pigments in their diet are thought to be necessary for the normal development of male Purple Finches’ raspberry red plumage. The mean handling time of a single sunflower seed is just over a minute and they prefer thin to fat sunflower seeds.
While the eastern population of Purple Finches has declined significantly since the invasion of House Finches (a few California individuals released from a pet store in New York City in 1939 as well as natural expansion of its western range resulted in a population explosion of House Finches in the east), both species can appear at feeders. Without fail, every winter I have to relearn the field marks that distinguish these two birds. Both males and females of these respective species are quite similar, but it is the drab and sparrow-like females that send me flying to a field guide.
Three features stand out as most helpful in distinguishing female Purple Finches from House Finches. The female Purple Finch has short, dark streaks on her breast, whereas the House Finch’s breast streaks are quite blurry. The female (and male) Purple Finch has a distinctly notched tail; the House Finch’s tail is just slightly notched. Finally, and most obvious, are their respective head patterns. Female Purple Finches have a conspicuous light eyebrow stripe that contrasts with a solid, dark brown ear patch, both of which the House Finch lacks.
Being seed eaters, Purple Finches are attracted to sunflower seed feeders, and if you feed birds, this provides ample opportunity to observe these field marks. While doing so, you may notice that Purple Finches can be fairly aggressive with each other when vying for this source of food. Surprisingly, more often than not, the female prevails. (photo: female Purple Finch)
Some of the most prolific flowering shrubs in the Northeast are dogwoods. In the spring, their flowers attract attention and at this time of year their colorful fruit stands out. There are many species of dogwood, two of which are Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) and Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum). These two shrubs can be hard to tell apart, as they both have white flowers, red stems and similar foliage. In the fall, however, the color of their fruit differs, as does their pith, or central stem tissue. The mature berries of Red-osier Dogwood are dull white and its pith is also white. Silky Dogwood’s blue berries have white blotches, and its stem and branches have a salmon-colored pith.
The fruit of these dogwoods and others is an extremely important source of food for many migrating songbirds, as well as resident birds. Wood ducks, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Bluebirds, Gray Catbirds, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, American Robins, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos, Cedar Waxwings and Downy Woodpeckers all consume dogwood berries.
The birds most commonly associated with winter irruptions are the winter finches — Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, and Evening Grosbeak. Their food supply, or lack thereof, in the Canadian boreal forests where they normally overwinter, determines whether or not they will be seen as far south as the U. S. Key trees affecting finch movements in the boreal forest are spruces, birches and mountain-ashes.
Common Redpolls feed primarily on the catkins (seed-containing fruit) produced by birch and alder trees. When catkin production is low further north, as it is this winter, Common Redpolls leave these areas and irrupt into areas where food is more plentiful. (Photo: male Common Redpoll)
At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)