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Pets Large & Small

Have you seen any Grosbeaks?

Rusty Ryan
Conservation Chairperson of the South Mountain Chapter
 of the National Audubon Society

(12/2013) Just the other day, I was asked if I had seen any Grosbeaks. Assuming the person was referring to the Evening Grosbeak, may reply was no. To tell the truth, I have never seen an Evening Grosbeak in the Mason-Dixon area.

The Evening Grosbeak does not breed in this area and is considered an "irruptive" species. Irruptive species are those which migrate outside of their normal range. These irruptive species are year round resident in their normal range of Canada and the boreal forests.

Birds irrupt usually due to lack of food in their normal range. Most of the "winter finches" that irrupt have a diet consisting primarily of seeds. Even the predatory birds will seek food south of the border when their food supply of small mammals is lacking.

The irruptive species one could encounter along the Mason Dixon include: Evening Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Common Redpoll, Crossbills (Red and White) and Pine Siskin. The predatory birds that one may encounter are: Snowy Owl and Rough-legged Hawk.

Other irruptive species are: Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blue jays and Bohemian Waxwing.

Purple Finch - Probably the bird species most misidentified along the Mason Dixon would be the Purple Finch. I hate to tell the readers but the "purple finch" that most people encounter is the introduced House Finch. The two can be difficult to distinguish especially the males. The females of the two species are easier to identify.

Evening Grosbeak – Imagine a cardinal sized goldfinch at your feeder. The only real difference between the goldfinch and grosbeak is the bill shape. The grosbeaks have a cardinal type of bill (mandible) which is used to crack open larger seeds such as sunflower. If you’re fortunate enough to receive a flock at your feeders, they will literally eat all you have to offer than move onto the next person’s feeder.

Crossbills (Red and White-winged) – As the name implies, these unique birds have crossed mandibles which allows this bird to specialize on retrieving the seeds from the cones of conifers. Keep an eye out this winter for these specialty birds by looking more closely at the conifer trees with abundant cone crops...

Common Redpoll – This finch like bird in size is similar to the Siskin but with more coloration. The Redpoll has a black chin and red forehead. Redpolls also feed on niger but they’re very fond of eating catkins from the alders and birch trees.

Pine Siskin – This non-descript bird has a thin bill designed for smaller seeds. For those folks who choose to provide niger (nyger) seed than this bird may just end up spending time at your feeder. Specialty feeders which are for "finches" are usually tube shaped with a perch located below a slit opening. The siskins thin bill is perfect for retrieving the niger seed. I suggest if you plan to feed niger to the birds that you invest in a proper feeder that allows the specialty birds to eat from because niger seed is quite expensive and you certainly don’t won’t to allow all birds to feed from a feeder full of niger with big openings.

NEWS FLASH: According to the 2013/2014 Winter Finch Forecast compiled by Mr. Ron Pittaway of Canada, the general forecast for the upcoming season will be that some southward movement of typical irruptive species is expected. Let’s cross our fingers that the forecast is right and we all get a chance to view these northern specialty bird species.

Citizen Scientists Get Involved!

If you enjoy birds and you feed the birds, get involved and help provide valuable data by participating in one or more of several surveys as explained below.

Audubon Christmas Bird Count – This annual event is held each December/January and was started in 1990. It is the world’s longest running wildlife survey and it is primarily conducted by everyday citizen volunteers. This count differs from some counts in that the count period is a selected 24 hour period within a pre-determined several week period. Participants are given a designated area by the count compiler. The participant seeks out to locate and count individual birds of each species. The majority of observations are done by identifying the bird species by visual means but the more skilled participants can identify the birds by the sound they make. Data is than given to the count compiler who than logs in the data to the computer where the scientists will look for trends in both population and distribution. Note: The South Mountain Audubon Society (Gettysburg) has selected December 14, 2013 as their annual count day. Check out their website.

Project Feeder Watch - This particular count occurs all winter-long and surveys the bird species that visit bird feeders. Volunteers submit the data and scientists review the data to determine species abundance and species distribution over a given time period. Project Feeder Watch is supported almost entirely by participation fees. The top 3 birds observed in the Mason Dixon area over the past few years are the chickadee species, the northern cardinal and the junco.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC)

This annual count is done over a four day period every February. Like the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the GBBC seeks out bird watchers of all ages and skills in seeking out birds in a certain time of year to provide scientists with a snap shot of a bird species trends both in populations and in locations.

North American Breeding Bird Survey – This count is similar to the various winter counts except the count is generally held in May or June when the majority of North America bird species begin to breed. If you like a challenge, go out on a weekend in around mid May and see if you can locate 100 species within a 24 hour period. I’ve done it once and it was tough but rewarding to put my skills to the test. Some luck is also needed.

In closing, please contribute to our feathered friend’s survival by supplying a constant clean food supply to help carry them through the winter months. Take it to the next level and become a citizen scientist and count those birds in one of several surveys. Remember, you can’t go wrong if you choose Black Oil Sunflower as your primary food choice.

Read other articles by Rusty Ryan