|Lesser Goldfinches feeding on sunflower seeds, one of their preferred foods.|
At times, winter in Central Texas may seem a bit drab, colorless, and dreary, but the season is usually brightened by members of a beautiful and diverse group of birds called finches. These small, seed-eating birds have an undulating flight, and flocks of them often roam south in the winter.
|A male Lesser Goldfinch|
Found primarily west of the Balcones escarpment, Lesser Goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) are present year-round, but are more likely to be seen at bird feeders in the colder months. At 4.5 inches long, males have an entirely black crown and back, white wingbars, and are lemon yellow below, while females have olive backs, black wings with whitish wingbars, and duller yellow underparts. They can gather in groups of up to several hundred at a time, and are most commonly found in Texas and California.
|A male American Goldfinch|
The American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is a slightly larger bird that is less common but typically present here from November to March. At 5 inches long, males have a bright yellow body, a black cap, and black wings with white wingbars. Females are duller overall, with an olive body and black wings with prominent white wingbars. They are the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, in late summer and then again in late winter in preparation for breeding season.
|A Pine Siskin|
Most gregarious are the Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), a 5 inch long finch with prominent brown streaking and yellow at the base of the tail and in flight feathers. At first they may appear mostly grayish-brown, but they flash their yellow markings as they explode into flight or flutter while feeding. Typically present from December through March, flocks of Pine Siskins may congregate at bird feeders one winter and be completely absent the next. Their behavior is highly nomadic and their presence is erratic across North America in winter in response to available seed crops. In fact, some individuals may stay near a dependable food source and breed far south of their normal breeding range, which is in Canada, the northern U.S., and higher elevations of the west.
While natural food sources are low in winter, these finches are most often seen at bird feeders that offer nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds. Their conical bills are specifically adapted to pry open the outer covering of seeds, after which they shake their heads to loosen the husk, and then swallow the seed. If you want to see these bright little birds at your feeders this winter, charm them by offering their favorite foods!