SPARROWS are sometimes called LBJs or little brown jobs, simply because some are various shades of brown.
This isn't really fair for some, like the golden-crowned sparrow. American tree sparrow and white-crowned sparrow are very colourful indeed. Even brownish species like Lincoln's, song and fox are beautifully marked.
But it's the finches that take the prize for colour - at least the males, and winter on the North Shore is an excellent time to enjoy them.
One difference that you can notice between a sparrow and a finch is the bill - both have seed-cracking bills, but the finches tend to be heavier. Some European finches like the bullfinch can even crack cherry pits.
Both the house finch and purple finch are North Shore residents, but others like the common redpoll are winter visitors only.
On a chilly Saturday morning at Maplewood Conservation Area, a small flock of common redpolls was seen foraging along the bank of the barge channel.
Sometimes red crossbills are also spotted here, as well as on the rocky shores of Burrard Inlet.
Redpolls are sometimes overlooked because they often are in the company of pine siskins. You'll need to scan flocks of siskins closely to find redpolls - look for the pink blush on the redpoll's crown ("poll") and the yellowish wing bars on the siskin.
Siskins, redpolls and goldfinches are related birds called the Carduline finches, together with Eurasian species.
A good place to look for these finches is in mature alder trees, since alder seeds are a favourite food. Again, it will take some careful watching to spot the redpolls amongst the siskins.
In winter, male goldfinches lose their bright yellow colour and look more like females - the colour will return in the spring in time for the breeding season. Our common goldfinch is called the American goldfinch, but from time to time the locally rare Lesser Goldfinch has been spotted.
Crossbills are a very distinctive group of finches, named for their bills - which are actually crossed over each other - an adaptation for extracting seeds from conifer cones.
Two crossbill species occur on the North Shore: red, which is more common, and white-winged, which is rarer. Skiers and snowshoers should watch for crossbills in our local mountains, along with the pine grosbeak and gray-crowned rosy-finch.
Grosbeaks are named for their massive bills (gros is French for "fat"). Three species that bear the name grosbeak occur on the North Shore: pine (winter), evening (resident) and black-headed (summer).
From time to time the pine and evening grosbeaks appear at bird feeders, where they prefer larger seeds like striped sunflower. Both are lovely birds with the male pine grosbeak a lovely shade of pink and the male grosbeak yellow with a massive greenish bill.
Purple and house finches are our two local resident species and are sometimes a challenge to identify since both males are reddish and the females brownish striped. It has often been said that the male purple finch looks as if it's been dipped in raspberry juice.
Male house finches can been red, but they can also been orange, pink and even yellow. There is a small "C" shaped mark behind each eye of the purple finch, a feature not found on the house finch.
Songs of the house and purple finch are very different. While the house's song is more canary-like, the purple's is an unmistakable rich warble. Interestingly, while both house and purple finches are seed eaters, one of the best places to find them in winter is in native Pacific crab-apple or hawthorn trees. In the case of hawthorns, the seeds are often extracted. Both species will also eat dried (mummified) Himalayan blackberry fruit.
Why do we see lots of redpolls, goldfinches, crossbills and siskins some years, but at other times they're scarce? These (and other) birds are known as irruptive species - a phenomenon thought to be driven by food resources. Redpolls, for example, are keyed into birch seed crops, and crossbills conifer seed crops. For more information about bird irruptions visit BirdSource (Birding with a Purpose) and then go to irruptive bird survey results where you will find excellent maps.
Enjoy our colourful diversity of finches; they're a wonderful part of our natural world.
Al Grass is a naturalist with Wild Bird Trust of British Columbia, which sponsors free walks at Maplewood Flats Conservation Area on the second Saturday of every month. Meet at 10 a.m. at Maplewood Flats, 2645 Dollarton Hwy. (two kilometres east of the Iron Workers Second Narrows Memorial Crossing). Walks go rain or shine. wildbirdtrust.org
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