Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Winter Birds from Canada in Chicagoland
Nature Bulletin No. 704-A   February 10, 1979
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W, Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Feeding and watching birds in winter is a pastime or even a hobby enjoyed by thousands of people who make no pretense of being ornithologists. They have fun and learn a lot about birds. They learn how one kind differs from the others -- in habits as well as in appearance -- and that a bird may differ noticeably, in temperament or even in plumage, from others of the same species.

One of the fascinations in feeding winter birds is that each year is different from the previous one and it frequently evokes some surprises. There are varying numbers of the usual visitors -- bluejays, downy woodpeckers, cardinals, juncos, chickadees, etc. -- but some winters you may have "aberrants": one or more holdovers of kinds that normally migrate southward in autumn -- such as the mourning dove, flicker, Carolina wren, towhee and brown thrasher.

And then there may be a winter when you see a flock of cedar waxwings, perhaps including a few Bohemian waxwings. Next year there are none of those but maybe an abundance of evening grosbeaks, or of purple finches, or of pine siskins.

Such irregular migrations, called irruptions, have never been satisfactorily explained. They are mostly peculiar to a few species of colorful birds that breed in the coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska -- members of the largest of all bird families which includes the grosbeaks, buntings, finches and sparrows. In addition to the evening grosbeak and the pine grosbeak described in bulletin No. 668- A, there are five species that also visit the Chicago region irregularly.

The Purple Finch is a sparrow-like bird that is not purple. The male is rosy-red, brightest on the head and rump, as if he had been dipped in raspberry wine. The female is brownish, heavily streaked, with a broad whitish line over the eye and, like most of her cousins, smaller than the male. Purple finches are seen here during most winters and sometimes in considerable numbers. They come readily to feeding boards where sunflower, hemp and millet seeds are available.

Another species frequently seen here is the little Pine Siskin. In coloring, size and actions it resembles the common goldfinch to which it is closely related. They tend to fly in flocks, undulating like the goldfinches and changing directions in unison. In summer they feed largely on fruits and insects, especially plant lice, but in winter -- like the other birds we are talking about -- they are seed eaters.

Redpolls, which make their summer homes in the far north of both hemispheres, wander southward in autumn but, although numbers of them were seen here during the winter of 1961-62 and in 1959-60, only a few were observed this year. Redpolls look like fluffy little sparrows, streaked with brown, except that they have bright red caps on their foreheads, black chins, and the male has a pinkish breast. They are friendly seed-eaters that sometimes flutter onto a feeding board like falling leaves.

Most distinctive of our occasional winter visitors are the crossbills. They have scissor-like bills with the upper mandible curved and crossing downward over the lower one. Peculiarly adapted for extracting seeds from the cones of pines, spruces and other cone- bearing trees, those bills and their feet are used in clambering about like little parrots.

The male Red Crossbill is brick red -- a unique color -- with a dusky tail and dusky wings without any wing bars. The female is olive gray, with a yellowish rump and underparts. The male White-winged Crossbill is rosy pink with a black tail and two broad white bars on his black wings. Curing the Audubon Christmas bird census, red crossbills are occasionally observed at Morton Arboretum. The white-winged crossbills are seldom seen here.

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