Here is the latest For the Birds column:
Last week I wrote about winter finches and how birds that aren’t even finches can easily be lumped into that broad category.
I mentioned a few examples and, of course, as soon as I hit the “send” button, an example that I failed to mention showed up in my backyard. It was a fox sparrow. Well, more specifically, two fox sparrows.
Fox sparrows aren’t finches, naturally, they are sparrows, just as their name suggests. But because they are small (relative to all birds) and show up at feeders throughout New England sporadically during certain winters, I think they can be mentioned under the very broad and nonspecific category of winter finches.
Winter finches, just to review quickly, are the northern birds that show up at New England feeders some winters, only to not be seen again for several years. Pine siskin is the prime example and this year seems to be another good year for siskins. Other species of “winter finches” include purple finches, evening and pine grosbeak, and redpoll.
It’s another good year for fox sparrows as well, judging from the number of people who have listed them on rare bird alerts and bird discussion threads.
I mentioned before that fox sparrows are small. This is true only in a broad sense. In terms of sparrows, the fox sparrow is a brute. If the chipping sparrow is the little brother of the family, the fox sparrow is the big brother. They are slightly longer, but noticeably more bulky than other sparrows. They have similar streaked plumage as other sparrows, but their color is more rusty than brown.
While I’ve seen them in the field from time to time, it’s been more than 10 years since I’ve had fox sparrows in my yard. That winter, more than a dozen of them could be found under the feeders, gobbling up the spilled seeds. They stayed for about a week and moved on. A decade later, I have them again.
Where these winter finches will irrupt is as hit and miss as when they will arrive. A bird-feeding station in one yard could have 100 pine siskins visiting, while the other feeders in the neighborhood could be completely void of the small birds.
Try offering a variety of seeds and other foods to increase your odds of attracting these out-of-the-ordinary feeder visitors. While sunflower seeds is a good catch-all food, try adding feeders with Nyjer (thistle) seeds, mealworms, suet, or safflower.
Even though it’s not technically winter yet, the winter bird season is upon us and many of these birds are being seen throughout the region. Be sure your feeders are filled and let me know what you’re seeing.