THROUGH THE WOODS: Looking forward to winter finches

Common redpoll. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

CANADIAN FINCHES STAY PUT when there are lots of seed containing spruce cones which anchor them in the north. It is good for them but not for birders down here who want to see them at their feeders. Reports are the opposite for this winter, with an apparent dearth of spruce cones in areas of Canada. Pine siskins are already being seen in New York State from Ausable to near Kingston, and a birder emailed last week to say she had a few pine siskins and evening grosbeaks at her yard in Chatham. I visited Nassau Lake last week to look for waterfowl and saw a few, and no winter finches.

Waterfowl are scarce and large flocks of Canada Geese are just beginning to pass through. This likely reflects our warm fall weather. If you have trees with cones keep an eye on them for seed loving finches like red or white-winged grosbills. Other northern finches we may see are male yellow, black and white evening grosbeaks, reddish pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, and some of our more usual birds such as purple finches, and area goldfinches.

I will put out one old test feeder containing sunflower seed to see if the bears have gone into hibernation yet. There has been no sign of the bears lately, so I may put up some suet next week. As it gets colder, I will put up more feeders. The finches like sunflower seed, but they are particularly crazy about Nyjer seed, which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as thistle seed. The seeds are small like thistle seed, but they are from an entirely different plant, Guizotia abyssinicia, grown in Asia and Africa, and has been used to feed birds for more than 40 years. The black seeds resemble very small grains of rice and contain a high content of oils that provide more calories per seed for the birds. These seeds are not native to the US and there have been concerns that they will be an invasive species, so the seeds are heated to make them unable to germinate before they are allowed into our country. This also kills other plant contaminants too.

If a plant with a yellow flower should happen to grow under your Nyjer feeder, it should be destroyed to prevent its spread. Their food value and almost no waste make their high cost per pound not much different in value than other seeds. People occasionally ask why birds are not eating their Nyjer seed, and it is usually because the seed is old or contains mold. Get used to how the fresh seed smells so you can detect mold if it is present. If the seed has just been purchased, take it back to the store and let them know there is a problem, and get a refund or try to get some fresher seed. If the seed has been in your garage over the summer and the birds won’t eat it, discard it and buy fresh seed.

I find higher quality seed stocked at places like Agway better than some of the discount stores. Because these seeds are so small, they fall out of regular sunflower feeders and require a tube feeder designed for them that has tiny holes. Another important part of a bird feeding program is cleanliness of feeders. It is good to wash them once a week with a fresh solution of 10% bleach (9 oz. water plus 1 oz. liquid Bleach like Clorox). Double or triple the solution as needed. Use within a few days as the diluted solution loses its effectiveness. Then rinse and dry them thoroughly so moisture does not cause the seed to mold. Finches are subject to bad eye infections, and contamination of feeders can spread these diseases. So, get ready to welcome our northern finch friends, they are on their way.

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