Irruptive Winter Finches

Learn why you're seeing so many finches this winter.

You may think that now our summer birds have migrated south, you won’t be seeing any new birds this winter. Think again! You might be treated to a visit by Red or White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches or Redpolls.

That’s because these birds are considered “irruptive” species — a large number of birds that suddenly leave their normal wintering grounds and head for areas where they’re not regularly seen. And other birds are known to do this too, such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, Clark’s Nutcrackers, Bohemian Waxwings and Black-capped Chickadees.

Irruptions are not the same as migration. Migrating birds leave every year, and generally for the same wintering grounds, usually in Central and South America, where they remain until spring. Irruptive species don’t travel to South America, but stay in the U.S. and Canada. Some winters they may not move at all from their wintering grounds, but during other winters they will travel great distances to follow a food source. During an irruption, some northern birds have been seen as far south as Texas.

Irruptive birds are seed-eating birds and an irruption will occur when seed supplies in their wintering areas become scarce. Then the birds simultaneously take flight to a new location with more abundant food sources. At any given time in the winter, there are usually at least one or two species irrupting in North America. Irruptions are not particularly predictable, but they do coincide with years when the birds natural foods are limited. Sometimes only a few species will be irrupting, and in other winters, many. However, when all the winter finches irrupt, it’s called a “superflight.” Irruptions and superflights have been tracked over the years by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and you can participate in their Irruptive Bird Survey.

How lucky to awake one morning to a large flock of grosbeaks or siskins at your feeders! They may not stay long, but studies have shown that if the new area has a steady supply of winter food, birds may abandon their old wintering grounds and adopt the new one, staying to nest in the spring. But whether they stay long or not, you can be sure of one thing — they’re going to be hungry! So, what can you feed them? Here’s a listing that will help you out!

Crossbills: A crossbill’s main food is the seed inside of pine cones. They use their unique, crossed bills to pry apart the cone scales to get to the seeds. At the feeder, offer them gray striped sunflower seed or  black oil sunflower seed.

Pine Siskins: Siskins eat seeds, tree buds and insects. They’ll love black oil sunflower seed, Nyjer seeds and mealworms, either roasted or live.

Pine Grosbeaks: These grosbeaks eat seeds, the seeds inside fruits, tree buds and some insects. Feed them gray striped sunflower seed, black oil sunflower seed or even put out apple halves—perhaps they’ll pick out the seeds.

Evening Grosbeaks: These grosbeaks eat a variety of fruits and seeds. They will eat black oil or gray striped seed at your feeder, and you can also try blends with fruit in them, such as Very Berry or Wild Berry Blend.

Purple Finches: Purple finches eat a variety of foods, including seeds, buds and tree fruits. Offer them the same foods you would feed to Evening Grosbeaks, listed above.

Redpolls: Redpolls eat small seeds, from birches and willows and also weed and grass seed. Feed them black oil sunflower seeds, Nyjer seed and millet.

For the most bird activity, try a variety of feeders.  Platform feeders are great for a large crowd, and tube feeders also work well for finches, since they are so agile.  Nyjer can be offered in a Nyjer feeder, or it can be mixed with any seed blend.

So keep your eyes on your feeders this winter. You never know, one day a big flock of fabulous finches may appear!

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  • Jan Paquette January 22, 2011 at 8:36 am

    My husband has been into bird feeding lately. I’ve been feeding the birds for years! He has been having an unusual feathered friend. A red bellied wookpecker. That we know our Candia, NH weather is a little too cold for this species, but he comes to feed on occasion. We haven’t been able to snap a picture yet. But he keeps the camera on his desk for this rare occasion.

  • Jeanette January 22, 2011 at 8:50 am

    this is the 1st winter in the last 7 or 8 that I’ve had only 1 or 2 gold finches at my Nyjer feeders — I used to have 10 to 20! I guess most of them have “irrupted” somewhere else. I miss them! My husband says don’t worry, they’ll be back. I hope so. Meanwhile the junkos are eating the Nyjer from the ground and right from the feeder!
    Damascus, PA

  • elizabeth January 22, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Jeanette, the goldfinches are here, in Birmingham, Alabama! I have dozens at any given time and they’re eating as much sunflower hearts as Nyjer.

  • Nanci January 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Major “irruption” has occured here on the coast of Winthrop, Ma. I have had birds I’ve never seen before. Most notably are a pair (or more) of red breasted Nuthatches. One that is very tame and takes peanuts out of my hand! What a treat. We had dozens of Pine Siskins early in December at my feeders, my 11 year old son stood near the feeder and they landed (and pooped) on his shoulder. We have not seen any lately. A friend who lives about a mile from me took a picture of a red Crossbill.

  • Brigitte Peck Ki Laou January 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I am from Montreal Canada and I have witnessed irruption of common redpoll and hoary redpoll on March 2009 . A huge flock of more than 30 individuals showed up on my backyard. Then, a few indivuduals were lingering for a few days.

    I am looking forward to see them again this year because irruption mostly happens every two years.

  • Gina Preston January 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I miss my Goldfinches. I saw a hawk grab one but I couldn’t get it to drop the Goldfinch. I hope this is not why I have not seen them.

  • ChristyJ January 22, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I”ve had a few surprises in my back yard this year. I’ve been an avid bird watcher for the past 30 years so I’m pretty familiar with the regular visitors and year long residents in my yard. This year I saw a flock of about 25 red-winged blackbirds for the first time. This was within a few days of the terrible report from Arkansas about the large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that dropped dead all over Beebe. I have also had a orange crowned warbler for the past week of so. I have never seen one of those before.
    Atlanta area

  • bella January 22, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    I was extremely fortunate to have many pine siskins at my feeders during the 2009 irruption in Northern New Jersey, during those winter months and the Great Backyard Bird Count! I will never forget going outside on the cold snowy winter mornings to hear and see those sweet birds all over the tops of my tree’s just waiting for me to put out my full feeders. It was amazing and I hope to have them visit again! The GBBC is coming up again in a few weeks and everyone should participate if they can. It is fun and the info gathered helps Cornel Labs and Audobon to better serve our feathered friends.

  • Peggy January 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    I have also had new birds at my feeders. The pine siskins are in abundance everyday. I have also had the fortune to see Varied Thrush, Towhee, Pileated Woodpecker, Purple Finch and of course the Nuthatches always make me smile. I also have 3 hummingbirds that are extremely active even now. It is better than watching TV any day!

  • Tambra February 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I must have all of the goldfinches and pine siskins in my back yard! They have been abundant this year but I have seen fewer tufted titmice and chickadee’s thank usual. I had a yellow rumped warbler surprise me and the return of male ruby crowned kinglet, who likes to peck at the atrium doors! I missed many of these last year, however I have not seen the blue birds bathing on the back porch this year- they usually venture up when the weather gets bad. With a foot of snow on the ground in Ok, I have been watching for them. Definitely better than TV!