Winter may seem like a bland season since warblers, tanagers and other favorite summer birds are absent. Backyard birders who take steps to attract winter finches, however, can enjoy outstanding seasonal color and energetic activity at their feeders and bird baths even in the coldest weather. These acrobatic finches are highly sought after winter visitors, and they're easy to attract with a backyard that meets their seasonal needs.
Types of Winter Finches
The birds typically called winter finches are small finches that prefer northern climates and boreal habitats. In the harshest, coldest part of winter, these birds' southern migration brings them into reach of backyards in more temperate areas. They may also experience periodic irruptions even further south, much to the delight of backyard birders who do not have the opportunity to travel to northern areas for birding.
The exact winter finches that may appear in any backyard can vary depending on the harshness of the weather, food supplies in northern areas, predator populations and other factors. Some of the most highly anticipated winter visitors include:
- Brown-capped rosy finches
- Black rosy-finches
- Common redpolls
- Evening grosbeaks
- Gray-crowned rosy-finches
- Hoary redpolls
- Pine grosbeaks
- Pine siskins
- Purple finches
- Red crossbills
- White-winged crossbills
In addition to these finch species, other northern species of sparrows, buntings and longspurs are also popular winter guests.
Many of the techniques used to entice finches will also work on other small northern birds.
How to Attract Winter Finches
Birds will readily come to a backyard that meets their survival needs. For winter finches migrating away from scarce food supplies and frozen habitats, that means providing rich, reliable sources of food, water and shelter for them to use.
- Food: Winter finches are typically granivorous and eat a variety of seeds. Adding extra Nyjer, black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower and millet to feeding areas will provide an abundant food source when these flocks arrive. Mesh or screen clinging feeders are ideal, and larger finches will visit hopper or platform feeders with comfortable perches. Seed-bearing flowers can also be left in a backyard for ground-feeding species to forage. Feeding areas should be spacious to accommodate the large flocks these birds form so there is enough food for all.
- Water: Liquid water is essential for all winter birds, and while they can melt snow and ice to drink, doing so requires extra calories that may be hard to come by when food supplies dwindle. Providing a heated bird bath with fresh, clean water can attract many winter birds, including finches. Several baths can help accommodate larger flocks, and both ground bird baths and elevated baths can be used to give birds more options. If possible, position a bath underneath an area where icicles form, and as they melt occasionally, the drips that fall into the bath will help attract even more birds.
- Shelter: Even the hardiest birds need protection from bitter nighttime temperatures and winter storms. Winter finches are comfortable in coniferous trees and shrubs, and planting a thicket of these trees will create a safe, easy roosting area for them to take advantage of. Dead trees and snags can be left intact, and birds will use any cavities or hollows as shelter. Leaving bird houses up in winter can provide extra shelter, as can specialized bird roost boxes. If it's not possible to add shelter to a backyard, using a discarded Christmas tree as an interim brush pile can be helpful.
More Tips for Attracting Winter Finches
Even in a bird-friendly backyard, it can be a challenge to make winter finches feel welcome. If you're having trouble inviting these northern visitors to your yard, remember to…
- Discourage bully birds that may usurp food supplies before finches can feed.
- Refill feeders frequently, even in storms, so birds can rely on the food source.
- Keep bird feeders clean to avoid spreading diseases to winter flocks.
- Take steps to protect feeders from snow and ice so the food is always accessible.
- Hawks are hungry in the winter too; take steps to protect backyard birds from hawks to keep visiting winter finches safe.
Winter finches – redpolls, crossbills, grosbeaks and other northern species – add color and energy to backyards even when the world seems frozen. By meeting these birds' needs for proper food, water and shelter during the harshest months, backyard birders can enjoy great birds no matter how bad the weather.