Winter Finch Basics

Ron Pittaway


Revised 20 September 2014. First published in OFO NEWS in February 1998

Hoary Redpoll at Norland, Ontario, 3 January 2008

Most winter finches are boreal species in the family Fringillidae noted for their irruptive migrations in search of tree seed crops. They feed almost entirely on seeds, supplemented with insects in summer. Winter finches come readily to bird feeders where the two best seeds to attract them are nyger and black oil sunflower seeds. Here, I offer ideas about the comings and goings of 10 species of winter finches in Ontario, including a comparison chart of finch species and numbers from 38 Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) in Algonquin Park.


 Pine Grosbeak

They have been recorded on 35 of 39 Algonquin CBCs, but they are much less frequent on Toronto counts. Pine Grosbeaks are a mountain-ash specialist. They irrupt into southern Ontario when Showy Mountain-ash and American Mountain-ash berries are poor in the boreal forest. Grosbeaks eat the seeds inside the berry, discarding the flesh. They also eat the buds and seeds of hardwoods and conifers. In settled areas, they feed on European Mountain-ash, crabapples, sumac and visit bird feeders for sunflower seeds. Except in irruption years, Pine Grosbeaks rarely occur in flocks of more than 10 birds in southern Ontario. Larger flocks are seen in the north. Bright rosy adult males are in the minority in most flocks. First year males look like females, but some are distinctly burnt-orange (instead of yellowish-olive to russet) on the crown and rump, often with a splash of burnt-orange on the breast. They are often tame and sit still for long periods, hence the name "Mope" in Newfoundland. When excited, they flick their wings and tail. The commonest call is a whistled tee-tee-teu. It is easily imitated and will decoy them in closely, especially single birds. Pine Grosbeaks migrate north earlier in spring than other finches, usually leaving Algonquin by late March.


Female Pine Grosbeak


Purple Finch

In most years, Purple Finches leave Ontario in the fall, returning in mid-April to mid-May to breed. They have been recorded on 14 of 38 Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts. However, in years of bumper tree seed crops, Purple Finches winter in Algonquin Park and regularly farther north in numbers. These northerly wintering birds sometimes move south in mid-February and March appearing suddenly at feeders in southern Ontario when tree seeds farther north are exhausted. Purple Finches give a distinctive metallic pink call that is easy to recognize as they fly overhead. Numbers dropped significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided and currently a moderate population decline continues in the province. An easy way to tell Purple Finch from House Finch in all plumages is by checking the tip of the tail - distinctly notched (slightly forked) in Purple and squared off in House.


Male Purple Finch


House Finch

Before 1940, House Finches did not occur in eastern North America. Our birds are the descendants of caged birds from California that were released by pet dealers in New York City to avoid raids by wildlife officers. The first House Finch reported in Ontario was in 1970 and the first breeding was in 1978. House Finches, unlike other winter finches, lack the ability to greatly increase their heat production in the winter. Many House Finches migrate south in fall and those that stay in very cold winters might not survive without feeders. Numbers have declined in recent years, probably because of the bacterial eye disease (Mycoplasma gallisepticum) now frequent in the species.


House Finch by Janice Haines


Red Crossbill

There are 10 call types of the Red Crossbill in North America that may be separate or newly evolving species. They differ in size, bill size/shape, coloration and cone preferences. In Ontario, at least three (probably more) call types occur and breed from time to time. Most types prefer pines, but Type 3 prefers Eastern Hemlock and White Spruce. Type 2 is resident in small numbers in the extensive Eastern White Pine forests of northeastern Algonquin Park. Another visiting type prefers Red Pine forests. Type 3 occasionally wanders in large numbers from the west to Ontario and breeds here. It is the smallest Red Crossbill with the smallest bill, even smaller-billed than the White-winged. Red Crossbills give hard jip-jip calls. The song is a series of loud whistles and interspersed warbles, richer and more varied than the White-winged Crossbill. Red Crossbills have been recorded on 27 of 39 Algonquin CBCs.


Male Red Crossbill


White-winged Crossbill

Like a pendulum, White-winged Crossbills move back and forth across the coniferous forests from Alaska to Newfoundland searching for cone crops. The range of the White-winged Crossbill is much more boreal than the Red Crossbill. The two species normally do not form mixed flocks. Males usually are pinker than Red Crossbills. The White-winged Crossbill's small bill is adapted to opening the small cones of spruce and Tamarack. Black Spruce is a key winter food in lean years because it has regular cone crops and usually some seeds are held year-round in long lasting cones. White-wings sometimes feed in hemlocks, but almost never in pines. When White Spruce cones are abundant in Algonquin Park, White-winged Crossbills usually are common and they are heard singing if they are going to nest. They have been recorded on 33 of 38 Algonquin CBCs. The song is a long series of loud canary-like trills on different pitches. They give a dry strident cheet cheet calls. A distant flock sounds like redpolls, but the notes are more rapid and often interspersed with a diagnostic loud musical peet. Unlike the Red Crossbill, the calls and appearance of the White-winged Crossbill are uniform across the continent.


Male White-winged Crossbill


Common and Hoary Redpolls

Redpolls resemble siskins and goldfinches in size, shape and habits. All these species often hang upside down to feed. An occasional redpoll has an orange or yellow "poll" (forehead). Common Redpolls are a White Birch specialist. White Birch has good seed crops about every two years with some seed most years. When birch catkins are loaded with seeds across the north, redpolls remain in the boreal forest. They have been recorded on 32 of 38 Algonquin CBCs. In Algonquin, redpolls often feed high in White Birch and Yellow Birch making it difficult to pick out a Hoary. In settled areas, redpolls frequent ornamental birches, weedy fields and feeders with nyger seed, making it easier to pick out a Hoary. Both species give rattling chet-chet-chet. A distant flock has a buzzing quality. The alarm call of perched birds is a loud rising sweeEET like a goldfinch but coarser. During irruption years, check flocks for the rare “Greater” Common Redpoll (subspecies rostrata) from the High Arctic. It is reliably identified by its larger size, darker and browner colour, longer/thicker bill and longer tail in direct comparison to “Southern” Common Redpolls (nominate flammea subspecies). Most Hoaries are “Southern” Hoary Redpolls (subspecies exilipes). The “Hornemann’s”Hoary Redpoll (nominate subspecies hornemanni) from the High Arctic was previously regarded as a great rarity in southern Canada and the northern United States. In recent decades a number have been confirmed by photographs. Hornemann’s is most reliably identified by its larger size in direct comparison to flammea Common Redpoll or exilipes Hoary Redpoll.


Common Redpolls


Pine Siskin

Like crossbills, siskins wander the continent in search of conifer seeds. They forage less often on alder, birch and in weedy fields. Most years the majority of siskins leave Ontario for the winter. However, when spruces and other conifers are laden with cones, siskins winter in large numbers. Recorded on 29 of 39 Algonquin CBCs, high numbers of siskins in Algonquin Park occur about every five years. Siskin flocks can be identified at a distance by their distinctive flight formation. They swirl in tight compact flocks whereas redpolls fly in loose undulating flocks. Through binoculars, you can see flashes of yellow in their wings and tails. Siskins silhouetted on top of a spruce can be identified by their very long sharply pointed bills. Siskins give a wheezy clee-ip call that is the best way to identify them in flight. Perched birds often give a long rising buzzy shreeEEEE call that is unique. As spring approaches, siskins are heard singing a twittering series of husky and buzzy notes. They sometimes breed in March when snow still covers the ground. At feeders, siskins relish nyger seeds. They are aggressive, fighting with one another, goldfinches, redpolls and even taking on Purple Finches.


Pine Siskin


American Goldfinch

Now common in winter in southern Ontario, American Goldfinches were once rare here in winter. The increase in wintering goldfinches is linked to the tremendous rise in bird feeding. In winter, goldfinches are inconspicuous and much less vocal than in summer, usually giving only low te-te-te notes. The bright yellow "Wild Canary" of summer disappears in winter because the adult males molt into a female-like plumage.


American Goldfinch


Evening Grosbeak

This spectacular grosbeak was very rare in Ontario 100 years ago. It now breeds here and is a regular but uncommon winter finch in the province. Populations were very high during the 1970s and 80s when spruce budworm outbreaks were at their maximum across the boreal forest. The larvae are eaten by adults and fed to young.  It has been recorded on 34 of 39 Algonquin Christmas Bird Counts. In Haliburton County where I live, the Evening Grosbeak is called "Skidoo Bird" because the males are gold and black. In the Ottawa area, they are known as "Greedies" because at feeders they fight with one another and other birds while devouring millions of sunflower seeds. Their loud ringing cleer and clee-ip calls, sounding like glorified House Sparrows, are distinctive. First year males are like adult males, but they can be separated at close range by the blackish inner margins of their tertials. As with other winter finches, the males tend to winter farther north than females, which explains why many flocks have fewer males in the south.



Evening Grosbeak


Finch Facts and Glossary

Irruptions: Boreal winter finches are noted for their erratic and nomadic movements, here one winter and gone the next. Irruptions are periodic mass movements to new areas, occasionally beyond their normal ranges. Major irruptions are caused by tree crop failures and usually coincide with high populations. There are two main types of irruptions: one in fall and the other in late winter. Irrupting finches search for areas where tree seeds are abundant and during occasional "superflights" as in 1997-98, many species together go well beyond their normal ranges. A second type of irruption happens in late winter when tree seeds are exhausted in the north, often forcing birds south to feeders. Do not confuse a late winter movement from the north with a return flight from the south after a fall irruption. Do two or more finch species synchronize their irruptive movements? Algonquin Christmas Bird Count data suggest that several boreal finches synchronize their movements and numbers to a high degree most winters, but not every winter when some species irrupt independently of one another. The variation is probably because different tree species produce varying seed crops from year to year and from place to place. All the boreal finches sometimes irrupt together when there is a widespread failure of all seed types. Continental climate is likely the common factor affecting seed crops and synchronous movements in boreal finches.

Cone Crops: Eastern White Pine has bumper cone crops every three to five years (rarely two good crops in a row) with few cones in between. White Spruce produces bumper crops every two to six years with poor crops in between. Eastern Hemlock has good cone crops about every second year. Good or poor seed crops are usually widespread over hundreds of kilometres. Frequently several tree species have bumper crops or crop failures the same year, helping to synchronize finch movements and numbers. Refer to the 1994 finch numbers in Algonquin when spruce, pine and hemlock crops cycled high together. That 1994-95 winter, White-winged Crossbills fed on spruce, Type 3 Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins fed on hemlock, but redpolls were absent because White Birch seeds were abundant in the boreal forest. Many factors affect seed crops; these include climate warming, early and late frosts, wet years, drought, insects and diseases. Flowering and seed ripening must be synchronized with the yearly climatic cycle. If the cycle is interrupted by unseasonable conditions, seed production is reduced or aborted. This is why winter finches have adopted their nomadic ways.

Finch Forecasting: Knowledge of tree identification and seed crops will allow you to make reasonable predictions about the upcoming winter and in some cases the winter after. Tamarack, spruce, hemlock and cedar cones mature in one season by mid-summer their crops are easily assessed. Pine and birch allow you to predict seed crops for both the upcoming winter and the following winter. White pine takes two seasons for its cones to mature. By late summer of the first season, white pine has 1-2 cm long conelets, which mature the next year in late summer. Birches have two types of catkins: long slender pollen-filled male catkins and conelike female seed catkins. Both types are normally present on the trees and easy to see in fall and winter. The number of seed catkins indicates how big the crop is this fall and winter and the number of pollen catkins indicates the the probable size of the seed crop the next winter.

Red-breasted Nuthatch: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist and it often irrupts south as do the boreal finches. A cone crop failure is indicated in those years that large numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate south in late August and September. Similarly, little or no southward movement indicates a good cone crop in the north, particularly on white spruce. There is a strong correlation between numbers (high and low) of Red-breasted Nuthatches and White-winged Crossbills in Algonquin Park. Pine Siskin numbers are moderately correlated with numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Mixed Flocks: Winter finches (except the two redpolls) rarely form mixed flocks, except at feeders and salted roads where they are drawn together. However, lone individuals of one species may be with a large flock of a related species.

Finch Calls: Learn the distinctive calls of the winter finches as they are the best way to identify them in flight.

Squeaking: If you see or hear a flock of winter finches flying over, "squeak" as loudly as you can. They will often turn around and perch in a nearby tree.

Road Kills: Thousands of finches are killed by cars in some winters when they seek the salt and sand put on roads. They have no fear of cars. If you see finches on the road, slow down, flash the lights and tap the horn. Be careful not to confuse other drivers.

Where To See Winter Finches: Algonquin Park is one of the best places in the world to see winter finches, but some years are better than others depending on cone crops. For the latest information on finches, call a park naturalist at 613-637-2828.

Acknowledgements: For advice and helpful comments on the original article in 1998, I thank Dennis Barry, Dan Brunton, Margaret Carney, Bill Crins, Brenda Chambers, Al Gordon, Michel Gosselin, Peter Hynard, Jean Iron, Chris Lemieux, Fred Pinto, Ron Scovell, Ron Tozer and Mike Turner. Jean Iron kindly formatted and commented on this revision.


AIgonquin Park Christmas Bird Counts 1974 - 2013

  1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985
Pine Grosbeak 95 23 46 137 522 10   259 178 0 90 4 78
Purple Finch 22   50   27       43   352  
'Red Crossbill 22   5   20   421   8   431*  13
White-winged Crossbill 562† 7 5 325* 641† 50 1134†*  14 1239†*   8728†*  
Common Redpoll 9 178 13 980 1971†* 6 198 76 5 1 43 6
Pine Siskin 1747†*   29 192 1072 4 5   36   4264*  
American Goldfinch 344   90 44 317  157     178   11  
Evening Grosbeak 691   56   69 413 83 1 1801†* 4 1474†*  
Total Finches 3602 208 244 1674 5262 682 1680 269 3310 95 15 307
Key to Symbols: North American Highs, * Canadian Highs  Data Courtesy of Ron Tozer
  1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Pine Grosbeak 95 161* 4 192 9 150 8 24 4 129 0 116
Purple Finch           3 125   154   57  
'Red Crossbill 5 28 3 19 1 4 4   3527†*   43  
White-winged Crossbill   747 656 8092†* 1 685 1435†*     2490†* 2 2848†*
Common Redpoll 1224# 95 2 581   1773   20   58   207
Pine Siskin 5 177 15 3862   22 261   4049†* 10 255  
American Goldfinch 1   64 7   7 187   41 5 54  
Evening Grosbeak 16 147 288 137 21 217 291 21 91 1 504 5
Total Finches 1346 1355 1032 12890 32 2861 2311 65 10356 205 3761 328

Key to Symbols: North American Highs, * Canadian Highs

  1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Pine Grosbeak 108 34 101 110   47 83 148   68 280 23 6 16 172  
Purple Finch 1189   5 1 959       280         26   321
'Red Crossbill 170   24 1 12 24 1   309   71   15 36 41 35
White-winged Crossbill 4150 5 2154 12 2060 149 1293 3 1513   1504   244 792 70 12
Common Redpoll 174 11 3 65   217 304 30 1 23 1010   115 567 61  
Pine Siskin 624   1144 1 47 1   1 2325   135 1 1 836 1  
American Goldfinch 784   67   932     3 386   88 143 5 219 24 201
Evening Grosbeak 219 5 110 1 96   2 1 119   24 3 1 80 6 73
Total Finches 7418 55 3608 191 4106 438 1683 186 4933 91 3112 170 387 2572 375 642

Key to Symbols: North American Highs, * Canadian Highs

Data from Birds of Algonquin Park by Ron Tozer 2012 and 2013 Algonquin Park Christmas Bird Count


Male Pine Grosbeak eating crab apples near Toronto, 8 December 2007