BIRD WATCH: Birds of a feather flock together

REDPOLLS, AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES and pine siskins — what do they have in common?

They’re cousins.

They are also among the most captivating members in the finch family.

Most of us are familiar with our state bird, the American goldfinch.

Those who faithfully feed birds, especially sunflower seeds and thistle seeds, are well acquainted with pine siskins.

When it comes to the common redpoll, they are mostly unknown in this part of the Northwest.

Siskins, goldfinches and redpolls are not only related but they also hang out together during the winter months.

It pays to take a serious look at the siskins mobbing your feeders.

It isn’t unusual to find goldfinches in these flocks.

When the American goldfinch is wearing winter plumage, they blend in with the siskins.

Their colorful yellow breeding colors are muted and their black caps have disappeared.

When you notice a siskin that isn’t all striped on its breast, chances are good you have a goldfinch.

Redpolls are easier to pick out when they travel with the pine siskins.

Just as their name implies, they have red on the top of their head.

It’s a wonderful deep raspberry red but it only covers the very top and doesn’t spill down the sides or back as the house and purple finch head coloring does.

Redpolls also have a wash of raspberry on their breasts.

Like the siskins, they are much smaller than the house or purple finch.

These birds are rare but they do visit ourz region during some winters.

A recent sighting came from Bainbridge Island, where local birders counted some two dozen common redpolls in company with a large flock of pine siskins.

I hope I can find a redpoll or more this winter.

I’ve only seen them twice.

Once was in Southcentral Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula. A flock was feeding on the ground and their red coloring caught my eye.

Something didn’t seem right.

They were the largest house finches I’d ever seen.

The concentrated red on the top of their heads was a giveaway.

The second sighting was in Kitsap County near the Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville.

Those were hotline birds and only two were in a flock of pine siskins.

When telling a birder friend about the redpolls on Bainbridge, he mentioned his experience with them.

Ron Hirschi is a well known author of natural history books for children.

Throughout the years he and his family have lived in different places.

Now he is back home in Kitsap County where he grew up.

While living in Montana, Ron and his wife, Brenda, became very familiar with redpolls.

They called them “Valentine birds.”

Valentine’s Day is close to the time they show up in Montana.

Both pine siskins and common redpolls are influenced by weather and food supply.

The large flocks of siskins that arrive in the winter months are mostly birds from British Columbia.

Banding of the pine siskins has shown this.

Redpolls are usually seen in the more northern part of Western Washington as these are northern finches that nest in the sub-Arctic and Arctic.

Redpolls are seen during the winter in larger numbers on the eastern side of the Cascades, especially in the northern counties.

Pine siskins and goldfinches are attracted to both shelled and unshelled black sunflower seeds.

They go through them like feathered pigs at a trough.

They love thistle seed, that filet mignon of bird seed.

So do redpolls.

I might have to loosen the purse strings and put some out if it will bring siskins in large numbers.

Who knows who will be joining them at the table?


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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