Migration situation: finches on the move

Migration isn’t quite over yet and this balmy early November isn’t slowing down the birds. The winter finches finally are moving down. The second half of October showed an increase in pine siskins in my Minneapolis neighborhood, and reports from others around the state increased, too. Purple finches are arriving and there’s a good chance for common redpolls this winter too. These birds can be hard to distinguish on their own, so here are some identification tips to tell them apart.Purple finchesThese birds, especially the males, can look very similar to the house finch. People always say that you tell them apart by the purple finch’s deeper purple color. I think that’s true if you are not colorblind but a far more reliable way to tell them apart is to look at the flanks on the birds. Male house finches will have bold brown streaking on their flanks and purple finches will not.

They may have some bright raspberry coloring on the sides, but no brown streaking. They also have a very distinct, high-pitched chip note that sounds like, “pik, pik, pik” when they are in your yard.Female purple finches look like miniature female rose-breasted grosbeaks and have a very distinct white eyebrow compared to the much browner female house finch. Both will have heavy streaking along the sides.Common redpollsAt first glance it can seem like a sea of gray and white at the feeder when the redpolls hit but take a closer look and you’ll see that they have little black goatees around their beaks and a pink cap on their heads. Some will be lighter than others and some may have quite a bit more pink than others. But if they have a goatee and a redcap, you’re seeing a redpoll.It could be quite the winter for redpolls. According to BirdWatching Daily in the last week of October, 125,000 common redpolls flew over Tadoussac Bird Observatory, which is about 150 miles northeast of Quebec City, Canada. An astounding 55,000 were reported on Halloween alone. Granted this area is above the East Coast but birds don’t always move straight south and they could shift southwest. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on your finch feeders.Pine SiskinsTiny siskins can easily blend in with a flock winter plumaged goldfinches being a dull brownish gray with a hint of yellow. But they stand out with their streaky bodies and with the yellow being on their wings not their bodies. Their calls can sound a bit similar to goldfinches to the untrained ear but they sometimes give a raspy up-slurred song from the tops of trees. 

If you are lucky enough to get pine siskins or common redpolls to a bird feeder, you may find your stockpile drained quickly. Large flocks of winter finches really can take over and decimate a bird feeder. They will eat nyjer thistle but they will also go for black-oil sunflower seed too. They can perch on just about anything from a tray feeder, to small perches to even clinging against nyjer bags. 

If you are not sure if winter finches have been reported in your area, you can always view eBird either online or through the birding app BirdsEye to see if any have been reported near you.

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