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The Birds of Autumn: Finches

Which birds might I see today? Finches

It is quite likely that you already know the birds I’m going to show you this time around. They are colourful, plentiful in numbers, sing beautifully and will come to feeders readily. They are the familiar finches, House Finches and American Goldfinches.

Male House Finch singing
House Finch, male, singing

House Finches are abundant across the continental US and southern Canada. You might see them in suburbs, open woods or urban areas with gardens or parks. Males are usually a bright orange-red on their head and breast, with brown streaking below and a brownish back. The red is brightest on the bird’s forehead, giving it a heavy-browed look. Females are streaked brown with no red colouring. House Finches have longish tails which are slightly notched at the end and short conical-shaped beaks, curved on top. As the name implies they are quite comfortable around human habitation.

Male American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch, male, in breeding plumage

American Goldfinches are smaller altogether (5”/~12.5 cm compared to the House Finch at 6”/~15 cm) but are equally abundant, absent only from the highest mountain areas. They are pretty birds in breeding season. Males are a bright pale yellow with a black forehead and mostly black wings with a distinct white wing bar. People sometimes mistakenly call them ‘canaries’, due to the bright yellow summer plumage.

Female American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch, female

Females have yellow underparts but are drabber on top, with some yellow on the face and throat and similar white wing bars. The American Goldfinch’s beak is much smaller than the House Finch’s, pink and pointed. When the breeding season is over, the males and females look very much alike, which is why you might think these birds migrate southwards in fall…

… but in fact they don’t! Both these species remain in our valley all winter. Fall is a good time to attract them to your feeder, (though if you live somewhere where bears can be a problem, it’s best to wait until the bears hibernate before putting out your bird seed.) Both of them will come to perch feeders filled with Black Oil Sunflower seeds. It’s entertaining to watch the birds feeding. House Finches sit and grind off the husks and extract the meaty centres with their tongues. American Goldfinches also stay at the feeder while eating. But in the wild they feed on smaller seeds such as dandelions or thistles, so if you really want to give them a special treat, put out some Black Niger seed! Although relatively expensive to buy, these seeds are so tiny they will last a long time.

Male House Finch at feeder
House Finch, male, at feeder

Perch feeders can be bought in many sizes and with variously-sized holes through which the birds can reach the seed. Match the beak to the hole size; House Finches need a larger aperture than American Goldfinches, because of their larger beaks. Check the label. I have also found that a columnar ‘peanut’ feeder with round holes on the sides can be filled with Black Oil Sunflower seeds without spilling too many. Then I enjoy watching goldfinches perch acrobatically upside down, sideways (or right side up!) while they eat. (House Finches tend to fall off these feeders, also entertaining in a different way!) As with all feeders, keep them clean by using an old toothbrush to scrub them off frequently and soaking them for ten minutes in a bleach solution every couple of weeks or so before drying them thoroughly to refill. You don’t want to spread disease among these colourful visitors who will otherwise quickly put you on their ‘must visit’ list, and become your local familiar ‘feathered friends’.

Pam Laing, Okanagan birder


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