Keep a close eye on your thistle feeder
(published 12-14-09)

February 1 was one of my best memories of 2009. It was Super Sunday, when the Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27 to 23.

Thing is, I’m not from Pittsburgh, not a Steelers fan and not a big football watcher. I did witness parts of the big game and confess to watching that goofy halftime show with Bruce Springsteen. But by then my day was already made: I’d seen something way more exciting.

I first noticed the birds from an upstairs window. By their size and shape I assumed they were pine siskins—not an everyday species in my backyard. So I hustled downstairs to get a better look. That’s when my eyes nearly bugged out. Right there, enjoying a mid-winter snack on my thistle feeder, were three finches wearing little crimson caps. Common redpolls!

Having lived here for 12 years, avian surprises of this magnitude are few. This was a backyard first, and only the third time I’d ever seen redpolls anywhere.

Redpolls and siskins are members of a group we call the winter finches. They are “irruptive species,” meaning they sometimes appear here in great numbers. The key word is sometimes. It all depends on the winter food supply on their northern breeding grounds. If the cone and seed crop is good, they may never leave Canada. But when food is scarce, the birds wander south in nomadic flocks. It’s during those winters that our thistle (or niger) feeders become finch magnets.

So be ready, and keep your feeders full. The goldfinches will love you for it, of course, and with luck so might a common redpoll, pine siskin or purple finch. These species were widely reported in our region last winter.

Another coveted winter finch, the white-winged crossbill, also “irrupted” here in 2009. This species was fairly easy to find if you went looking for it—but not at feeders. White-wings prefer conifers. They dine in trees or on the ground, picking at cones. Morton Arboretum is one of the best local spots to observe them, in the hemlocks and spruces.

Siskins, on the other hand, could become daily customers if you keep a thistle feeder. This winter, look closely for siskins, purple finches and redpolls. If you don’t already know these species, look them up in a field guide so you are well prepared. They are not difficult to identify, but they are not flashy either, so you need to be alert.

The first siskin I ever saw was on my thistle feeder—still my only “backyard lifer.” But the “Super redpolls” last winter thrilled me even more. I’d waited so darn long for those guys.

The redpolls, unfortunately, disappeared after 20 minutes and never returned—at least not when I was watching. Thistle feeders all over the region, however, continued to pull them in throughout February, delighting birders and surely adding to many a life list. The feeder at Cantigny Park in Wheaton hosted redpolls right into early March.

If you have birch or alder trees in your yard, watch those too. Redpolls love the seed catkins.

Will this winter provide similar viewing opportunities? Well, a widely watched winter finch forecast says probably not. The report, published annually by Canadian ornithologist Ron Pittaway, indicates that natural food sources will be plentiful in the far north. So the winter finches may not need our handouts.

Yet birding, thankfully, isn’t always so predictable. Even in “non-irruptive” years there are certainly redpolls, purple finches, siskins and crossbills in the area. Not as many, but some. It’s our duty as birders to keep an eye out for them.

Copyright 2009 Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Redpoll photo by Jim Frazier