Finches in the vanguard
To find proof that spring is on its way, look to winter’s birds
Published: February 24, 2012
|By the first of March, those of us in the North hungrily search for the vanguards of spring. I know it’s easy to feel discouraged when robins are nowhere to be seen while redpolls, siskins, and other winter finches remain abundant, but look again. I’ve found that the birds most associated with winter provide fun observations and proof that spring is on its way as well. |
Redpolls. Longer days rev up birds’ hormonal levels. Throughout March, redpolls grow increasingly restless. If you’re lucky enough to have visiting flocks just before they start heading back to the taiga, you may observe a spurt in squabbling. Redpolls are extremely sociable, apparently defending only enough personal space to ensure that they can spread their wings to take off in a hurry without colliding. They don’t seem to defend a territory even when nesting. But in early spring, females suddenly grow more aggressive toward males as part of their process of mate selection. A potential mate may appease an attacking female by feeding her.
Redpoll courtship feeding usually begins on the breeding grounds, but sometimes you can witness a few exchanges of food even on the bird’s wintering range late in the season. I’ve seen the behavior several times in March and April in my backyard birch tree, and once or twice at a sunflower seed feeder. It’s worth watching for.
Siskins. In March, Pine Siskins produce more and more long, ascending zhreeeeet calls, and spruce trees seem to come alive with their twittering and buzzing. In good invasion years, some pairs may remain as far south as Illinois and Missouri to breed. If you’re hearing a lot of their buzzy calls and seeing them feeding one another, you might get to observe nesting. I’ve found two nests in Madison, Wisconsin, and one in Lansing, Michigan, each below my eye level in a young spruce tree. I found each nest in late March or April after watching a male singing exuberantly.
Other finches. American Goldfinches are among the last songbirds to breed each year, but adult males start molting into their brilliant yellow spring plumage in late March. For a few weeks, their patchwork of bright and dull feathers is better assurance of coming warmth than the mixed signals that we get from weather forecasters.
How to feed. Nyjer and sunflower are the best seeds to offer all of these small finches. They’ll use just about any feeder. Normally you don’t have to worry about squirrels or other birds raiding thistle socks or tube feeders with tiny feeding ports designed for finches. Finches also pick through seeds on the ground.
Finches are very attracted to grit, which provides essential minerals and helps their gizzard grind down seeds. Finches, grosbeaks, and crossbills often visit my children’s sandbox to take grains of sand for this purpose, and they take bits of crushed eggshells, which I set on a couple of my platform feeders. Healthy finches make for happy birdwatching.