Winter Finches

Posted on February 5th, 2009 by

This winter southern MN has seen an irruption (increase in number) of three winter finches: Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, and White-winged Crossbills. These species breed mostly in Canada and can be found in winter as far south as Duluth most years.  Some winters, however, food sources up north become scarce, causing the birds to venture farther south in search of ample sustenance.

The Linnaeus Arboretum began hosting Pine Siskins back in September of last year. These birds often appear south rather early in fall, and are present in good numbers in the southern half of the state about once every two years. The birds can be found at feeders containing nyjer thistle, which is the same birdseed that American Goldfinches prefer. A few of these birds have been present in the Arb all winter thus far.

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Beginning the middle of January, a southward flight of Common Redpolls occurred in southern MN. These birds can be found in small numbers across the state any winter, but large numbers appear in the southern half of the state about once every four or five years. The birds also feed on nyjer thistle seeds; several people in south-central MN have reported flocks of 100 or more of these birds (as well as siskins) at their feeders since late January. There has been a flock of 13 redpolls hanging around the Interpretive Center this week feeding on thistle seeds that I have spread on the ground for them.

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Last November birders in the Twin Cities began reporting flocks of White-winged Crossbills. These birds can occasionally be found in very small numbers south of Duluth, but very rarely. In fact, an irruption of these birds in southern MN occurs about once every decade or two. The reason for this is because they feed on the seeds of spruce cones, which are usually abundant in their northern breeding range. This past year, however, the northern spruces experienced poor cone production. This coincided with a bumper crop of cones produced by the spruces of southern MN. Thus, the birds have found a plentiful food source this winter well south of their usual range. I first observed a small flock of these birds fly over campus last Friday, but then this past Tuesday a flock of 40 or so was voraciously feeding on the White Spruces in front of the Interpretive Center. The flock’s presence was first evidenced by the piles of cones that had accumulated at the base of the trees in which the birds had been foraging.

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7 Comments

  1. Becca says:

    Thank you for the update on the avian life at GAC! I noticed a healthy flock of robbins on the hill last week. Could you explain that anomaly?
    Seems like all are a flutter this sunny J-term.

  2. Bob Dunlap says:

    Hi Becca,

    There are thousands of robins overwintering in southern MN right now. Usually there are only a few flocks numbering no more than a hundred or so in scattered locations any given winter, but this winter robins are pretty much abundant everywhere. The unseasonably warm weather back in early November may have caused some of these birds to lose the hormonal urge to migrate. Another reason may be the surplus of berries from last year; upon seeing this plentiful food source, the robins may have decided to spend the winter feeding instead of expending energy to go further south. And yet another reason for so many may be that the Dakotas seem to be missing some of their overwintering robins, and thus perhaps some of the western birds came east into MN (probably because of the berries).

  3. Karen Swenson says:

    Great info, thanks! I feel so lucky to have seen the White-Winged Crossbills on campus also. It amazes me how close they allow us come. I’ve had the Pine Siskins feed on sunflower seeds in my back yard in Henderson. Haven’t noticed the Redpoles, but I will continue to watch for them. Do you know what the blue birds, that have spent the winter here, are feeding on?

  4. Bob Dunlap says:

    Karen,

    The bluebirds are most likely feeding on berries; my guess would be Eurasian buckthorn or perhaps sumac. There aren’t that many bluebirds that overwinter in MN, but there are a few locations that seem to host them each winter. And with the many berries produced this year on many of our trees and shrubs, this year there may well be more than usual. Unfortunately (this is an issue for the robins as well) berries do not provide much protein, and they face starvation if they cannot find a good protein source by March or so. Last spring dead bluebirds were reported across much of the state because their main food source, insects (high in protein), had not emerged yet due to the relatively colder-than-normal temperatures. To battle their low-protein diets of berries during the winter the birds may occasionally take sunflower seeds at feeders; while not preferred by bluebirds, the seeds do have high protein contents.

  5. When do the yellow finches come back to MN. I had 20 at a time at my thistle sock last summer. I have left it up all winter. I see a couple of finches are they not eating the thistle because it is old,, stale or could it have mold over the winter

    Thanks Laura
    new to birding

    • Bob Dunlap says:

      Hi Laura,

      The goldfinches actually stay around through the winter in MN; however, they change color to a duller gray/brown (so that the males look more like females). Right about now the males should be reacquiring their bright yellow plumage. All finch species are also very nomadic, so that some winters they might decide to move somewhere else (but not necessarily migrate) where another food source is located. If no birds seem to be eating the thistle, I would toss the seed on the ground and refill the feeder with fresh seed. Birds aren’t always that picky, and sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting until the birds find the feeder again.

      Good luck and welcome to birding!
      Bob

  6. Lee Ann Simonson says:

    I have had oodles of yellow finches at the feeders this Spring which I do every year, but the past few days i have not had any,have they moved farther north and are gone?