Paying attention is always important in seeking birds, but it’s especially important when birds are relatively scarce. Sometimes, something unexpected pops up. That’s what happened last week, when a sizable flock of siskins settled into the feeder array. Siskins are the only finches that frequent these feeders, and they, too, have been relatively few. This flock contained about 30 birds, all small, all brown, all flighty and none displaying prominent field marks.

All siskins, I assumed.

Just as I turned away, I noticed that one of the birds was less striped than the others, and this prompted a second look. Siskins are striped above and below; the pattern on the upper back – ahead of the prominent wing bars – is especially delicate. This bird had none of these. Instead, its back was pale, greenish gray in color.

A goldfinch! I thought.

Close examination proved that this was true.

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The bird had an unstreaked breast, as goldfinches do, and it showed just a hint of color.

This gave me considerable pleasure, because a goldfinch showing a hint of color is among the first signs of approaching spring. The advancing daylight stimulates the bird’s hormones, and they begin to show traces of the breeding plumage that is so familiar and so welcome in summer gardens.

Winter goldfinches are not unusual in our area, and in some years, they are abundant. This is a relatively new development. The bird is considered a winter vagrant here. More and more individuals spend the winter, it seems to me. Probably bird feeders hold them this far north. It’s also possible that the late harvest, especially of sunflowers, helps tide the birds through winter, as well.

This has been a tough winter in the Red River Valley The extreme cold in January is only part of it. The real bugaboo for birds is the snow cover, and even more the thick layer of ice that recent thaws have produced. This makes foraging in open country pretty difficult for seed-eating birds, and they have been scarcer this winter than in any winter I can remember.

Open country birds, such as snow buntings and horned larks, seldom if ever come to feeders. I tossed a handful of seeds along the county road that passes our place and was rewarded with a small flock of snow buntings. These were roamers, though; they soon set off down the road, probably gleaning seed that had fallen from passing trucks. Horned larks are much less common here in winter. Farther west and south – more west than south – they can be abundant in open fields. They are among our earliest spring migrants, since they don’t have far to travel.

The larks and buntings are old timers in the Red River Valley, snow buntings in winter and early spring and horned larks in early spring and summer. Goldfinches, on the other hand, are usually thought of as summer birds.

That’s partly because they’ve only recently become regular winter residents.

The big reason, however, is that they undergo an almost complete change in plumage. Male goldfinches are brilliantly colored in spring and summer, bright yellow overall with black wings that have white bars and a black spot on the head. This makes them instantly recognizable. Females need a second glance. Like the males, they seem plump. They are unmarked on the breast and belly; topside they seem greenish tending to yellow, but stopping far short of the vivid color of the males.

These details aren’t useful in separating goldfinches from siskins, however. In mixed flocks of birds, goldfinches are often overlooked. A little patience – and closer attention – will allow virtually certain separation of these two species. Siskins seem slim, an impression augmented by the relatively long tail, relative to body size, and the prominent fork at the end. Siskins seem darker than goldfinches, a consequence of the heavy streaking.

Goldfinches appear chubbier, rounder and lighter in color than siskins.

I’ve spent much time watching siskins on the back deck; they are not the only visitors, as the goldfinch proved. Chickadees show up regularly, and blue jays are always eager to pick up the peanuts that I offer (unsalted and in the shell, please). White-breasted nuthatches are around, though I hear them more often than I see them. The hairy and downy woodpeckers are regular guests at the suet.

The neighborhood raven continues its fly-bys past our place. Last week, there were two snowy owls along Grand Forks County Road 33, bringing my winter total to four, an unusually low number.

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

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs