Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published October 26, 2012 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com


A House Finch (left) and a pair of Purple Finches stoke up at a bird feeder on their way south. Black oiled sunflower seeds are favorites.

Irruption: when birds head south

Pine Sisken and Goldfinch“Freeze warning tonight!” Jewel was reading the weather alert for our Pennsylvania home base even as we were in mid-migration scurrying down I-95 to our St Lucie County wintering grounds. This was not a surprise for, indeed, we had tolerated a few cold nights just before our departure the preceding day, and thus hastened our escape from the advancing winter.

The same early cold weather had created the apparent beginning of what ornithologists call an “irruption” of Pine Siskins and Purple Finches. For even though very few of our more common winter visitors had yet arrived, the White-throated Sparrows and Northern Juncos (the original “snowbird”) for example, our feeders, and from reports, everybody’s feeders, were covered with Pine Siskins and Purple Finches, birds that in normal winters show up in modest numbers. When these birds have

irrupted previously a few always seem to make it to Florida, and St Lucie County appears to be at just about the limit of their irruptive range. Or, more realistically, probably just beyond their range. Nevertheless, it might be well to know what to look for.

The species most likely to cause confusion in identifying Pine Siskins (above, bird on left) and Purple Finches, because of their superficial similarity, are the American Goldfinch (above, bird on right) and House Finch respectively. Pine Siskins have tiny little bills compared to Goldfinches, but are distinguishable by the fine streaks on the breast and belly of the Siskins unlike the plain breast and belly of the Goldfinch.

Siskins have yellowish wing markings, but Goldfinch wings are black. Male Purple Finches (right, top) and House Finches (right, second from top) are both red, but Purple Finches tend to shade more toward cranberry color. Also, the male House Finch has brown streaking on the under-belly, while the male Purple Finch is plain under the belly.

House FinchThe female Purple Finch has more finely marked streaking on the breast and belly than the plainer female House Finch, but one noticeable difference between the two species: both male and female Purple Finches have a lighter line over the eye that House Finches don’t have. When I first began birding I would scrutinize the array of House Finches at our feeders for Purple Finches. I often thought that maybe a particularly brightly colored male might finally be it. When one finally did arrive, it really was fairly easy to determine that there is a distinct difference. One final caution, the juvenile male Purple Finch can look almost like a bird from a completely different species altogether. Check the photo shown here.

How to attract these finches? Black oiled sunflower seeds work particularly well for all four species, and Niger (or sometimes Nyger) seed also works well for Siskins and Goldfinches. The plain unsalted and blanched peanuts also attract these birds as well as many others. We found that the millet feed, preferred by the Painted and Indigo Buntings, was not as attractive to these finches as it is to the buntings.

When we arrived in Florida and called back to Pennsylvania to inform family and friends of our safe journey, we learned that we did indeed have a heavy frost the preceding night and that the pineapple sage and black and blue salvia flowers that we had left in full bloom for any late passing hummingbirds did not survive the brief wintry blast. Oh well, the hummingbirds have no business waiting this long to migrate anyway. They should have been on their way to Florida and points south, just like us. For more information on irruptions see http://www.birdsource.org/ibs/irruption.html. (10/26/2012)

Female Purple Finch

Purple Finch, female

Purple Finch, male

Purple Finch, juvenile male


(Click photos for larger versions)