Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bird ID: Finches and Sparrows

When I have time I like to set the tripod and camera up in front of the balcony doors and take photos of the birds. We have several feeders up there, which keeps the raccoons and squirrels out of them. It's pretty wide open, of course, with only a crab apple tree down below to provide cover, so we get different birds here--or at least in different numbers--than what we get at the feeders behind my studio, which is more sheltered.

One of the varieties which seem to show up more on the balcony are the finches. I feed pretty much the same stuff in both places but the finches flock to the balcony--along with the invasive house sparrows, whose numbers seem higher this year than before. This is where we saw common redpolls and pine siskins several years ago, and where six evening grosbeaks were spotted in November--but who left before I could get any pictures of them.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I was playing with my camera, seeing what sort of quality I could get in poor lighting conditions, and noticed a pine siskin perched atop one of the feeder poles. It is the first one we've seen here in a number of years. Unfortunately I had to shoot through the window screen, which has made for a pretty poor image.

Pine siskin on our balcony.

These little birds are very easy to confuse with the female house finch, another abundant invasive. The two easiest ways to tell them apart are by looking at the wings and beak. Siskins have yellow on the front edge of their primaries, but that is hard to see in the photo above, and is not always obvious. They also have narrow, pointy beaks, used to get inside pine cones, and I find this to be the best way to tell them apart. In addition, they are smaller than the house finch, but that is difficult to judge unless the birds are side by side.

Pine siskin, front view

Below is a female house finch for comparison. Note how stout the beak of this bird is.

Female house finch, not to be confused with a pine siskin.

The American goldfinch is closer in size to the siskin and has a similar beak shape, but neither the male nor female is streaked. Male and female goldfinches look very similar in winter, but I think this is a male. The wing bars tend to be whiter than the female's, and they have a little more yellow on their heads.

American goldfinch in winter.

Here's a female house finch next to the goldfinch.

Hey, you're blocking the camera!

Winter brings a number of sparrows south to our feeders as well, including the American tree sparrow. Another easily confused bird, this little beauty looks very much like a chipping sparrow. The quickest way to tell them apart is the American tree sparrow has a yellow lower mandible...

American tree sparrow.

...and a black spot on its breast.  Also, while their ranges overlap, chipping sparrows are not generally seen in Southeast Michigan in the winter, American tree sparrows are absent in summer, so time of year can also be a hint.

A bit blurred, but note the black patch on the breast.

The dark-eyed junco is another winter sparrow that visits our feeders. I just love this little bird.

Male dark-eyed junco. The female is somewhat lighter and more brown.

And because I couldn't resist, check out this gorgeous female Northern cardinal. I have never seen a female with so much color before. I have watched her both on the balcony and behind my studio. Her colors make her easy to spot among the other female cardinals. Cardinals have been showing up in abundance again this year. I counted 12 in the crab apple tree a few days ago, and in the past I have seen as many as 22 behind my studio.

Female Northern cardinal.


  1. Timely post! We finally receive some winter weather last night & today. Snow and high winds. The birds are flocking to my feeders.

    1. Yes, it is a wonderful time of year to bird watch at your feeders.