We had a large flock of Cedar Waxwings in the yard early one morning this week. It was just after dawn on a day when it dropped below freezing the night before. For whatever reason, the waxwings were infatuated with our bird bath, fluttering down from the nearby Mulberry in waves of 10-20 to drink from the fountain before being shooed away by the next wave of birds. This went on for over an hour. I‘d be very interested to know what was going on, but like so many things in nature, their behavior was inscrutable.
I added some natural perches to our main feeder station. The birds seem to like the addition and I think natural perches are generally more attractive than made-made types. Here's an American Goldfinch on one of the new perches.
Pine Siskins are related to other finches such as the American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, Purple Finch, and House Finch. Visually they’re a perfect mashup of a House Finch and an American Goldfinch, though they have a finer bill than either. Because of that fine bill, they’re unable to crack larger seeds such as whole Black Oil Sunflower, so they tend to favor tiny seeds such as Nyjer and fine sunflower chips (like so many finches, they seem to prefer fine sunflower over almost everything).
Pine Siskins often congregate in large flocks, but individuals sometimes come to feeders with flocks of American Goldfinches. Being the same size and with similar coloration, they easily blend in with goldfinches, and unless one looks closely they can go unnoticed.
Our feeders have been crowded with American Goldfinches this winter, but we’ve only seen a small number of Pine Siskins. The few that have visited have been either singles or pairs mixed in among our large Goldfinch flocks. We’ve yet to see any on their own. The bird in the above photo recently visited along with a flock of 20+ Goldfinches.
More information at the Audubon Field Guide →
The Bewick's Wren comes to the feeder at full speed, grabs what she wants, and flies off in a flash. I've been trying for a year to get a crisp photo of one these little bolts of lightning and finally managed one the other day.
Here's some information from the Audubon Field Guide:
"In dry thickets and open woods of the west, this is often a very common bird. Pairs of Bewick's Wrens (pronounced like "Buick") clamber about actively in the brush, exploring tangles and bark crevices, waving their long tails about, giving harsh scolding notes at any provocation. In the east, this species is far less common, and it has vanished from most of its former range east of the Mississippi River."
The other day we looked at the distinguishing characteristics of the male Purple Finch versus the male House Finch. As I mentioned in that post, the two species are often difficult to differentiate, with the females being particularly confusing. Let’s take a look at how to tell these closely related birds apart.
A primary key for identifying the female finches lies in their markings. The Purple Finch has more clearly defined markings, with more contrast on the head, including a light eyebrow and relatively dark cheek. The House Finch is more uniform in color, and where it has markings, they tend to be less clearly defined. Also keep an eye out for the undertail coverts; Purple Finch coverts are plain white, whereas House Finches show some streaking under the tail. I also sometimes detect a slight yellow coloration in the Purple Finch (see above), but this is inconsistent.
Another distinguishing characteristic lies in the structure of the tail. Purple Finches have shorter tails with a distinct, deep notch, whereas House Finches have longer tails with only a subtle notch.
And finally, even though both species have bills that are characteristic of seed eaters, the Purple Finch’s bill is longer and more clearly triangular in shape. By comparison, the House Finch’s bill is shorter with a more obviously curved upper mandible.
These two birds are easily confused at first glance, but once you have some practice keying in on the characteristics listed above, positive identification becomes much easier.
Purple Finches are very easily confused with House Finches, with the most confusing factor being the fact that they’re both red. I suppose if you’re a person who is sensitive to color, you might detect a tiny bit of purple in the Purple Finch, but most people aren’t going to perceive color to that level of subtlety.
The most obvious distinguishing characteristics of the Purple Finch are as follows:
- The Purple Finch has red coloring from its head and breast onto its back and wings. The red on House Finches is more confined to the head and breast.
- The tail of the Purple Finch is shorter and more deeply notched than the tail of the House Finch.
- The Purple Finch is slightly more raspberry red, whereas the House Finch tends slightly more toward orange.
- The House Finch has heavy brown streaking under its wings, the Purple Finch has little to none.
All of the above pertains only to the male of both species. The females have no red at all and are even more difficult to differentiate, but that’s for another post.
After looking through our bird seed receipts I started wondering if our local goldfinches are taking advantage of us. Then I shot this photo and my question was answered... LOL.
After regularly being frustrated by digging through tubs and fussing with ziplock bags, I finally got serious about organizing our bird food and ordered some OXO containers. These are the 4.3 quart, Pet POP Containers. Depending upon the density of a particular food, they hold slightly less than a standard 5 lb. bag. We chose these because they fit under our counter, but I would probably go up to the next size if I had space. Overall, I’m very happy with the setup. It’s nice to be able to see how much of each food we have at a glance, and it’s great to not be digging through bins full of ziplock bags, spilling seed, and making a mess. Here’s what we’re currently feeding:
Fine Sunflower Chips
Fine sunflower is the number one most popular bird food. It’s particularly attractive to the various species of finches and sparrows that are so prevalent in Northern California. My friends at Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU) tell me they can barely keep it in stock. We call it “bird crack”. Check out this video of a flock of goldfinches in a feeding frenzy on a tube feeder filled with fine sunflower.
WBU No Mess Blend
No Mess Blend is a popular food that’s based upon sunflower chips but also contains other shelled seeds and nuts such as white millet and peanuts. It’s called “no mess” because it contains no shells so there’s little waste. The advantage of No Mess over straight sunflower is that finches throw the millet aside which the sparrows and doves then eat off the ground.
WBU Choice Plus Blend
Choice Plus Blend contains the widest variety seeds, nuts, and fruit of any blend I’m aware of. It’s designed to attract the widest variety of birds and works really well on platform feeders for birds that won’t come to tube feeders. The blend includes black oil sunflower, chopped tree nuts, sunflower chips, shelled peanuts, suet nuggets, safflower, striped sunflower, cherries, and cranberries.
Black Oil Sunflower
Black oil sunflower is a staple item in any bird feeding pantry. It appeals to almost all seed-eating birds and is used as the basis for many standard blends. We like to place it on the platform feeder in piles to attract White-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches.
Nyjer (thistle) is a popular seed for attracting finches. It’s typically offered in a “finch feeder” with openings designed specifically for the tiny seeds. While many sources will tell you that nyjer is the best seed for attracting finches, in our experience they far prefer sunflower chips. We offer nyjer in a finch feeder as a backup for when our sunflower feeder is occupied.
Shelled peanuts are a favorite of Acorn Woodpeckers and California Scrub Jays. Both species regularly visit our wire mesh peanut feeder.
Goldfinches are one of the most common birds at bird feeders, and they’re also one of the most tolerant of humans. Backyard birders in California can potentially see them every day of the year. They’re easy to take for granted, yet they continue to be one of my favorite birds due to their exceptional beauty and vibrant personalities.
The two primary goldfinches commonly encountered in our area are the American Goldfinch and the Lesser Goldfinch. Identification can be tricky for the layman, though there are a few details that can help differentiate the two:
- The American is slightly larger then the Lesser (hence the “lesser” moniker)
- The Lesser has an olive green back, the American has a yellow back
- The Lesser has yellow undertail coverts, the American’s are white
- The American has more pronounced wing bars than the Lesser
- During breeding season, the American’s bill is lighter
There are other details to consider, but the above should be enough to make a positive identification in most cases. Check Sibley’s, Cornell, or Audubon if you need more help. And don’t worry, you’ll find they get easier to identify once you’ve seen a few side-by-side!