Winter Finches harder to find

Much to the disappointment of people who watch and enjoy birds, finches are considerably down in number statewide this winter. Two species, the American Goldfinch and the Northern Cardinal are permanent residents and are generally in good number. Other finches that are low in number include the Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, White-winged and Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches.

Dedicated birding friends who periodically go into northern Wisconsin counties to observe and study the birds report that only the occasional home where heavy bird feeding is done from year to year seem to be attracting small numbers of the finches. In other winters much of at least the northern half of the state can have thousands of some finches. Bear in mind that birds can successfully winter only in areas where their preferred food can be found. They don’t have the convenience of doing their grocery shopping at supermarkets! In the case that their usual food supply is in short supply, then they must fly elsewhere to find it, hundreds of miles at times.

A female Pine Grosbeak rests in a tree.

Few seed catkins were formed on the Paper Birches in our region last summer, which in turn means that the Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls aren’t being seen here this winter. The absence of these birds may also mean that their native food supply to the north is in good shape and the birds have no reason to look for it elsewhere. A member of the maple tree genus, the Box Elder, called the Manitoba Maple in Canada, is one of the favorite foods of Evening Grosbeaks. Lack of these seeds in the Northern counties of Wisconsin often will naturally move some of these flashy seedeaters southward. Should they come upon bird feeders well stocked with sunflower seeds, another favorite food of these rather gluttonous creatures, they may contentedly remain until spring. The same idea holds true of some of the other finches as well. Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins will greedily devour Niger seeds day after day when they find them available.

For quite a few winters throughout the 1960s into the 1980s many Evening Grosbeaks wintered in Door County. It was during one of the late 1960s winters, while I was living at the Ridges Sanctuary’s rangelight residence, that I kept track of the number of 50-pound bags of sunflower seeds I fed mainly to the Evening Grosbeaks. It was not uncommon to estimate as many 300 of these colorful noisy birds in the yard at one time, resembling giant overgrown Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies! The total came to 44 bags, which amounts to 2,200 pounds – over one ton! That set a record, which we fortunately never surpassed.

The more northerly Pine Grosbeaks, erratic wanderers in the North Country, prefer wild fruits such as Highbush Cranberries and Mountain Ash, along with the seeds of especially ash trees. These beautiful birds don’t actually eat the complete fruit of, for example, the Mountain Ash; they are only interested in the seeds within the fleshy pulp which falls to the ground. The fruit of ornamental Crabapple Trees also appeals highly to the Pine Grosbeaks.

The Evening Grosbeaks, which for many years were primarily western birds, gradually moved eastward in their nesting and winter feeding. One of their favorite summer foods has been the dreaded Spruce Budworm. As the populations of these damaging insects shifted, or aerial spraying over large forested areas was done, the Evening Grosbeaks also moved into new nesting and feeding territory. Today they nest in around ten of our northern counties. Oconto and Marinette Counties to the west of us are the nearest of their summer breeding territories.

The Lukes’s old feeder is swarmed with Evening Grosbeaks in the late 1970s.

The recently published Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin does not list the Pine Grosbeak as a state breeding bird. However, their occasional southward movements into the state in winter in search of food are eagerly anticipated. What gorgeous, gentle, trusting birds they are, always on the lookout for Crab Apple, Mountain Ash, any of the ash trees, or maple trees having many nutritious leaf or flower buds. Should they locate, for example, a Mountain Ash tree loaded with fruit, they will return day after day until that tree is totally stripped of fruit.

Charlotte and I came to love their high, delicate, soft bell-like notes as they fed. A common Newfoundland name for the Pine Grosbeak, native to that country, is the “mope,” undoubtedly due to their extreme unwariness toward people. The American Heritage Dictionary states, in part, that to mope is “to give oneself up to brooding or sulking, to move in a leisurely or aimless manner: to dawdle, or to move in a daze.” It was in February of 1982, 28 years ago, that I decided to learn just how trusting they really were.

Four of the colorful birds feasted on sunflower seeds very calmly and patiently on the large platform feeders near our north kitchen window. Moving in slow motion I cautiously approached them. Soon one left the group and flew up into the Quaking Aspen tree near the woodshed. Four or five feet closer and two more departed, leaving one Pine Grosbeak, either a female or young male, with the platform feeder and seed to itself.

A male Pine Grosbeak grabs a snack at a feeder near Sister Bay.

Now I began speaking in whispered tones to the bird. Occasionally I’d softly whistle the high delicate notes, “TEE-TEE-tyou, TEE-TEE-tyou” as I continued taking short steps toward the trustful creature. Finally my face was within 12 inches of the Pine Grosbeak that also whistled a high “whisper song” as it fed. I simply had to softly say, “You are an incredibly beautiful bird in case no one has told you so before!” Our very private conversation continued for two or three minutes – the thrilling memory will remain with me forever.

Circumpolar nesters in the edges of the pine-spruce-fir belt, these grosbeaks of the remote wilderness have not learned to fear man. Their beauty and song, whenever they come this way, help to temper the icy edge of “Old Man Winter.” Read over their favorite plant list. Consider especially the Mountain Ash, one or more of the ornamental Crab Apples, or Highbush Cranberry. Plant them this summer near your homes so that by the next time the Pine Grosbeaks grace the winter landscape here, plenty of natural food will be available for them. Both you and the birds will profit greatly.