You have probably heard talk about "winter finches" in the past. Some of you may be wondering what winter finches are and where they come from. I thought that some information on these birds would be in order, especially since it appears that many will be showing up at your feeders this winter.
Although the term finches generally refers to a group of seed eating birds related to sparrows, the term "winter finches" in birding circles refers more specifically to several species of birds that spend most of their time in the forest of Canada where they depend on the seeds of conifer trees as a food source. Included in the term are pine grosbeak, common and hoary red poll, pine siskin, red and white-winged cross bills, and evening grosbeak. All of these birds have one thing in common; every several years they leave their normal summer range and emigrate to the south. Since people in the United States do not see these birds very often, most birdwatchers are very happy to see them and look forward to these birds showing up at their feeders.
The pine grosbeak is the least common of the group and does not appear to travel as far south as many of the other species. This species' range includes the conifer or boreal forests of much of Canada and is very rarely seen south of the border except in winter. The bird is rather large and heavy; males are washed with red while females are various shades of brown-orange. In natural habitat they feed primarily on seeds of conifers, maple, birch, and fruits such as crab apple. During the winter months, they can be attracted to feeders with sunflower seeds. They are fairly tame birds, probably a result of being unfamiliar with man and can often be approached quite closely.
The common and hoary red polls nest very far north in Canada near Hudson Bay. These birds are small, sparrow-like species that are almost identical in plumage and are difficult to tell apart. One of the better field marks is that the hoary red poll has a snowy white rump while that of the common is streaked. As the name implies, the common red poll is much more abundant than the hoary. These two species have similar food preferences and feed to a great extent on seeds of birches, alder, conifers, and weed seeds. The red polls tend to be very erratic winter visitors and sometimes show up in great numbers. Sunflowers and thistle seeds are preferred foods at feeding stations. Look for red polls fairly late in the winter.
Another pair of species that look much alike are the red and white-winged cross bills. The cross bills are very interesting winter finches in that their bills are adapted to pry seeds from pine and spruce cones; the bills actually are crossed and somewhat hook-like. The birds use their bills to separate the cones and extract the small seeds found inside. They are primarily birds of the Canadian conifer forests that travel south to the northern and central U.S. The red cross bill is more common than the white-winged and also can be found further south.
The last two species of winter finches are considerably more common than the species already described. The pine siskin and evening grosbeak are more abundant and also appear in the U.S. more frequently. These species also are being seen further south, with many sightings as far as the Gulf States.
While these two species travel farther to the south, that is about where the similarities end. The siskin is a small, striped bird very similar in size and character to the goldfinch, while the grosbeak is a rather large bird with an enormous beak. The grosbeak uses its large beak.