My backyard birdfeeders have been very active this winter with plenty of wild birds - and not just the usual assortment of wintertime birds.
I have, of course, black-capped chickadees, the usual number of white-breasted nuthatches and blue jays, as well as a few hairy and downy woodpeckers. Normal as normal goes.
But I've also been enjoying pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, common redpolls, American goldfinches, and occasional flocks of purple finches and pine siskins this winter, too. In fact, the evening grosbeaks are the first visits I've had by these delightful and colorful birds in many years.
Purple finches and common redpolls are two species of birds that are often referred to as "irruptive" species, or a species subject to irruption. 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 associated with winter irruptions are species such as pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills.
Species that will often shift wintering locations are black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, Bohemian waxwings, varied thrushes and snowy owls. I've heard of a few snowy owl reports in the Red River valley this winter, but none in the Bemidji area yet.
As well, I've observed large numbers of Bohemian waxwings and have received a couple of reports from readers who have observed varied thrushes. Plus, a few e-mails have been sent to me from people seeing American robins well into the months of December and January.
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. While not necessarily true, what it does mean is that species of birds migrating to wintering grounds not normally occupied are probably having a tough time of it elsewhere and are finding themselves searching for more favorable areas. For another way to put it - food is the driving force, and birds go where the food is.
About 10 years ago when I lived in rural Warren, common redpolls were the species of the season. After moving to the woods of the Bemidji area in the spring of 2002, it wasn't until just recently, including this winter, that common redpolls once again began showing up. Their presence at my feeders is another reminder of their irruptive nature.
Although I'm going through more bags of black oil sunflower seed than I did last year, and the price for 50-pound sacks continues to creep upward, I'm having fun feeding all those hungry finches, grosbeaks and other birds. And I'm especially drawn to the American goldfinch. So docile and tolerant of their own kind and other species, goldfinches sit for long periods of time for close observation.
Some people may not even realize that 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 presently have goldfinches visiting your feeders, look closely and you should be able to distinguish the males from the females. Males are just beginning to show 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.
As is the case for all finches, goldfinches are adept at cracking shells and consuming seeds; it's part of what being a finch is all about. I have often observed these birds masterfully husk sunflower seeds in rapid succession.
One common method often used by finches to open seed hulls 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.
Grosbeaks, on the other hand, do it a little differently. Their robust bills are designed to crack open the hulls of sunflower seeds. Once the job of opening the seed is completed, a grosbeak scoops out the seed with its large tongue and swallows it. I've read where an evening grosbeak can crack, extract and swallow around 20 sunflower seeds a minute!
I've had a backyard full of birds this winter, and it doesn't seem to be slowing up. I have counted as many as 18 pine grosbeaks at my feeders at one time, including a handful of evening grosbeaks, a dozen or more hungry blue jays every weekend morning, large uncountable mixed flocks of redpolls, goldfinches, purple finches, and siskins . . . plus all the regular and familiar avian friends.
Indeed, it's never a dull moment when I fill the feeders. Throughout even the coldest days this winter the sweet wild birds have been out there - sometimes singing, sometimes calling - but always feeding and entertaining us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at email@example.com