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Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Last week’s irruption of finches may have been fleeting

Purple finches seem to be peaceable birds. Of course, they have the advantage of size. They are noticeably larger than the siskins, and much stockier.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

Last week’s irruption of finches might have been a fleeting phenomenon. Evening grosbeaks appeared in great numbers, but reports dropped off dramatically, often after only a single sighting. This strongly suggests that the birds moved on.

Likewise, the purple finches deserted my feeders after a stay of three days. The finches topped out at five – three males and two females on one day and two males and three females the next. This isn’t unusual for purple finches. They don’t really form flocks; it’s possible that each bird arrived alone. Nor is five a definitive count. I can’t be sure that the birds are the same individuals, of course. Nor can I say there were not more than five. I can say there weren’t fewer, however, because I saw the five at the same time.

I can also say with certainty which birds were male and which were female. Purple finches are strongly dimorphic, each sex displaying different plumage. With this knowledge in hand, I can say for sure that a total of six finches visited my backyard, even though I saw only three birds at a time. But again, this isn’t a definitive count. It’s just the total that I can verify. There may have been other purple finches that I did not see.

Both male and female purple finches are striking birds. To tell the truth, however, the female has no claim to the name, except that it is recognizably a finch. You can tell by its conical bill, a useful tool for seed eating. Females are brown or grayish brown. The most impressive feature is the facial pattern, a dark patch against a white background. Males have this dark patch, too, but it is less noticeable, perhaps because it is overshadowed by the male’s color. Breeding males seem to have been dipped in raspberry juice, as Roger Tory Peterson noted in one of his most memorable descriptions of any bird species. The color is less bright in winter, but it is still the dominant impression of a purple finch – the male, that is.

Pine siskins continue to swarm my feeders. This is another northern species. Unlike purple finches, however, they tend to move in large flocks. My guess is that there are more at my place west of Gilby, N.D., as I write on Wednesday afternoon.


The siskins have been joined by a few common redpolls. Last week, I had but one; this week, there are four or five. This is a very small number; redpolls sometimes appear in truly large flocks, but so far this has not been a good redpoll year. That fact suggests that perhaps the irruption that had the local birding community so excited just a week ago may have been a temporary thing. This can’t be known with certainty, of course. A large number of finches could appear any day. Or the winter could pass without another significant influx.

The number of siskins at my feeders has led me to a couple of conclusions. One is that these are feisty little birds. Very feisty and very little. Siskins are among the smallest of North American birds, but that doesn’t make them passive. It’s impossible for me to determine which are the dominant birds, because every one of the 100 or so individual birds looks alike.

The birds pack quite closely together at the feeders. No social distancing for them. Nevertheless, individual birds exert dominance. The most common show of force, so to speak, is lifting the wings and striking out with the beak. This generally disperses birds competing for position.

The gesture reminds me of a human shrugging the shoulders and flopping the arms, which with us is a gesture of resignation. Not so with the siskins, however; the wing-lifter invariably gets better access to food.

By contrast, the purple finches seem to be peaceable birds. Of course, they have the advantage of size. They are noticeably larger than the siskins, and much stockier. From a siskin’s perspective, they must appear formidable. The purple finches feed together without incident, at least that I have seen. Neither males nor females display any threatening gestures. Purple finches are very much smaller than blue jays, however, and they join the general retreat when the blue jays appear at feeders.

At the same time, they seem oblivious to woodpeckers at the feeder, perhaps because they’re not seeking the same food. The woodpeckers stick to suet, while the finches are largely seed eaters.

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November is the high season for purple finches in our part of the world. Often, the birds hang out here through the Christmas Bird Count season, and they stop briefly on their way to nesting grounds farther north – but not much farther north. Purple finches are regular breeders in forested areas of Manitoba and Minnesota.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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Mike Jacobs

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