Bird Watcher's General Store

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Fall Finches

Dear Bird Folks,

I think I have a pair of Evening Grosbeaks eating seeds from my bird feeders. Is that possible? Is it a big deal?

– Will, Eastham, MA


Yes, it’s possible, Will,

And yes, it’s a big deal. I’ll be right over…

I arrived at Will’s house so quickly, he didn’t even have a chance to get dressed first. But that didn’t bother the ever accommodating Will. He met me in his driveway, while still wearing his bathrobe. (That’s a dedicated bird watcher.) We stood watching his feeders for quite a while and saw lots of cardinals, chickadees, titmice and even a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but not a single a grosbeak. I turned to Will and was about to ask if he was sure about the grosbeaks, but before I could open my mouth, he produced a photo. The image was shot through the window and was quite blurry, but there was no denying his claim; he indeed had a pair of Evening Grosbeaks on his feeder. Cool beans! I’ll never again doubt the word of a man in a bathrobe.

Each fall I write a column in which I advise folks to keep a close eye on their feeders. Why in the fall? Because once or twice a decade, the northern seed crops fail, causing a mass exodus of finches from Canada. This failure is cyclical and not a sign of a serious environmental problem. (Although, this year the birds could simply have an increased appetite due to Canada’s recent legalization of marijuana.) More often than not, however, my dream of a huge influx of hungry birds turns out to be just that, a dream. Not to be deterred, I’m sounding the alarm again. Based upon recent reports, I might be right this time…I hope.

Let’s begin with Will’s Evening Grosbeaks. Many of the “invasion” birds are nothing special to look at and are often overlooked by novices. This is not the case with grosbeaks. They are big, noisy and conspicuous. The males are bright yellow, with jet-black wings and a gargantuan beak. The beak on this bird is seriously strong and could easily crack open anything from a sunflower seed to a wall safe. They also have immense appetites and will empty your feeder as fast as you can fill it. People who think Blue Jays are pigs, have never seen an Evening Grosbeak in action. They make jays look anorexic. Grosbeaks are also feisty, causing a ruckus wherever they go. But they are not quite as feisty as their smaller cousins, which is another surprise bird being seen this fall.

Behind our shop we have a small thistle feeder. The feeder sits on a tiny plot of land, surrounded by asphalt, dumpsters and a broken truck. The fact that birds use a feeder in such an environmentally ugly place surprises me. This past Sunday, the same day Will called, I noticed a weird finch on the feeder. I ran into the shop, grabbed a pair of binoculars out of the case and focused on the bird. It was a Pine Siskin (aka, the grosbeak’s smaller cousin). Looking like a cross between a female House Finch (very streaky) and a female Goldfinch (hints of yellow), siskins can easily go unnoticed. Some years siskins are hard to find, while other years they may dominate feeders. A few years ago, we had such an influx of siskins that it actually created a shortage of thistle seed (really). Weighing only half an ounce, these tiny birds are quite sociable, often found in large flocks. But don’t let their small size and sociability fool you. Once a siskin lands on a feeder, it gives way to no bird. They are like little dogs lunging at a big dog, but without all the annoying yipping.

On Saturday, the day before the siskin and grosbeak arrived, I received an email from a guy who thought he had a “warbler” on this feeder. It wasn’t a warbler, but instead was a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Red-breasted Nuthatches breed on Cape Cod, so seeing one isn’t unusual. But in recent weeks the reports of these birds have skyrocketed. I hear them constantly while I’m out birding and they are outpacing the chickadees at my feeder. Red-breasted Nuthatches are highly entertaining birds, landing on the feeder upside down, or upside right and in several positions in between. They are also super-friendly and will often take seeds right out of your hand while you are filling the feeder…even if you’re still wearing your bathrobe.

Finally, this past Monday, yet another uncommon bird arrived at my feeder. It was a Purple Finch. Not to be confused with the ubiquitous House Finch, Purple Finches are far less regular on the Cape. Yet, over the last few weeks their sightings have also increased dramatically. Once again, you should pay close attention to your feeders or you might not even notice this irregular visitor. How to tell the two finches apart? This takes a little practice, but the male Purple Finch is significantly purpler than a male House Finch. The females of both birds are mostly streaky brown, but the female Purple Finch sports a bold white “eyebrow,” while the House Finch female has no eyebrows at all (probably from too much threading).

If there was ever a fall to keep an eye on your feeders, Will, this is the one. In addition to the birds we’ve just discussed, you could also see Common Redpolls, White-winged and Red crossbills, and perhaps even a Pine Grosbeak or two. And if any of those odd birds actually do arrive at your feeder, please call me right away. Just keep in mind that I can be there in less than a minute, so keep your robe handy.