Winter Finches

Mention finch to a birder and chances are, if they live in the United States except Alaska or Hawaii, they will think of goldfinch or house finch or both. Both are on the feeders outside my window right now, goldfinches on the perches of the tube feeders with thistle or nyger seed, house finches on the tube feeder perches and on the platform feeder.

The goldfinches outside my window are American goldfinches. There are two other goldfinches in North America, the lesser, a bird of the southwest, from southern Wyoming and Idaho south into Mexico and west to the coast, and Lawrence’s goldfinch, a bird of areas of California and Baja, California that is occasionally seen in Arizona.

The range of the American goldfinch is from the East Coast to the West Coast and southern Canada to the southern states in summer, south to the Gulf Coast in winter. It’s the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa and Washington.

The range of the house finch is even broader. East Coast to the West Coast, southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and much of Mexico. Once its range was The West and southwest and Mexico. But 60 to 65 years ago it was released, introduced, illegally, in New York and perhaps other eastern cities and it has multiplied and spread across the country.

Goldfinches and house finches are little birds.  Mention finch to a birder and they are likely to think little birds. No finches are big but there are some that are bigger. Gray-crowned rosy-finch, brown-capped rosy-finch and black rosy-finch, birds mostly of the Rocky Mountains, are about the size of bluebirds. Evening grosbeaks, yes, some grosbeaks are finches, but not all, and are nearly as big as robins while pine grosbeaks are as big as robins. 

House finches are now year-round birds over all the U.S. except Alaska and Hawaii and, strangely, much of Florida. Goldfinches, American goldfinches that is, are year-round birds from southern Canada to the southern U.S. states, winter birds in those states and the southern states. Then there are winter finches, birds that live and nest in Canada and in the U.S. in the mountains. Except the purple finch which also nests in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s the state bird of New Hampshire and a more or less regular winter visitor over the eastern half of the U.S. One came to our bird feeders for a few days earlier this winter and we expect, hope, to see more.

The other “winter finches” are, to us, erratic and completely unpredictable. Last winter we saw a pine siskin at our feeders twice.  In other areas, much of New York State for one, pine siskins were numerous.  Birders in New York call it the winter of the pine siskins.

I remember a winter when I lived in Ithaca, New York when common redpolls lived up to the first part of their name. I saw these little birds with the bright red foreheads along country roads. I saw them in many woodlots. I saw them in trees in town and on the Cornell University campus. I saw a flock one day in the parking lot of a grocery store.

A winter finch, or a flock of winter finches, a purple finch, pine siskins or redpolls, red crossbills or white-winged crossbills or evening grosbeaks can make the dullest winter day seem bright to a birder.

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