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Blane Klemek column: Where have all the finches (and red polls) gone?

So far this early winter, my backyard birdfeeders have been active, but by not that many different species of birds. I've had the usual abundance of black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and blue jays, but no evening grosbeaks or pine grosbeaks yet this year.

I've also enjoyed an ever increasing cottontail rabbit population. Every morning when I approach the feeder to fill it with fresh black-oil sunflower seed, the three to six cottontails that are normally gathered below it and cleaning up residual seed scatter in all directions, only to return a short time later.

At the suet feeder, I've observed the usual numbers of downy woodpeckers and, occasionally, hairy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers, but I've seen no red-breasted nuthatches yet. For rarer species, I've watched a few pileated woodpeckers swoop through the woodlands and monopolize the suet feeder—it's always a comical sight when these giant woodpeckers teeter on the small feeder to extract bits of suet.

What I haven't observed, though, are the hordes of birds belonging to the finch clan, like purple finches, pine siskins, common red polls, and American goldfinches that I often delight in most seasons. Perhaps with inclement winter weather that's bound to eventually arrive, maybe more of these species will begin showing up once again.

Indeed, a good friend of mine from west central Minnesota e-mailed me a photograph just a few days ago of what he described as a "...whole flock of siskins!" At closer examination I had to inform him, "Red polls!"

Common red polls, pine siskins, American goldfinches, and purple finches, among others, are species of birds that are often referred to as "irruptive" species, or species subject to irruptions. An irruption is simply an influx of different species of birds into a geographical region not normally occupied by that species on any given year.

We typically observe this phenomenon during the winter months when birds migrate from the north to the south. Other birds commonly associated with winter irruptions are pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, red crossbills, and white-winged crossbills.

Other species that will often shift wintering ground locales are black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, Bohemian waxwings, varied thrushes, and snowy owls.

Some people believe that seeing large numbers of uncommon birds, or birds not commonly observed in a particular area, is a sign of a harsh winter to come. Well, we certainly know this is not the case, particularly when one considers the last several winters, including the current one so far.

But what it does mean is that species of birds migrating to wintering grounds not normally occupied are probably having a tough time elsewhere and are finding themselves searching for more suitable areas with better habitat and food, with food being the major driving force. Birds go where the food is!

During some years at my backyard feeding stations, common red polls were the species of the season. I recall some winters when red polls were everywhere in everybody's backyards. But this winter I have seen only a couple of small flocks of red polls, and not one goldfinch or siskin. Certainly some of this has to do with habitat. My immediate surroundings do not include many coniferous trees, though conifers are abundant just down the road. Further still, I am feeding only suet and sunflower seeds, which may also explain part of the reason for the lack of bird diversity at my feeders.

And yet some readers have reported observing large flocks of common red polls mixed with goldfinches and siskins. So docile and tolerant of their own kind and other species, these species will sit and feed for long periods of time for close observation.

Regarding goldfinches, some people may not even realize that American goldfinches are feeding from their feeders. Diminutive and inconspicuous, the wintertime goldfinch is far different looking than its spring and summer appearance. This is the case for many birds. With spring comes a change of feathers, or molt, and breeding male goldfinches will soon be sporting bright yellow plumage contrasting sharply with black caps and black wings.

If you have goldfinches visiting your feeders, look closely and you should be able to distinguish between genders. Males are becoming more yellow than the females now. Even so, most male goldfinches, even in the winter, will be slightly more colorful than the females, especially on the shoulder area.

All finches are adept at cracking shells and consuming seeds; it is part of what being a finch is all about. I have often observed birds of this group masterfully husk sunflower seeds in rapid succession. One common method often used by finches is by cutting. Using their tongues to lodge a seed in furrows of the roof of their mouths, the husks are then sliced with speedy forward and backward motions of sharp-edged jaws. The cut husks simply fall from their mouths and a clean seed is swallowed. It's amazing how quickly this is done.

Throughout even the coldest days of winter, finches of various species will suddenly appear; even singing at times — the songs and calls of purple finches vocalized from the highest of perches and the American goldfinch's telltale "per-chik-o-ree" flight call, as well as the soft "tip" notes of feeding common red polls — are a pleasure to see and hear as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.