Rare Winter Birds Visiting the Garden

PHOTO: common redpoll

Something big is happening at the Enabling Garden this winter. Four bird species that usually live in northern boreal and mixed coniferous forests are feasting on birch catkins, alder seeds, and spruce cone seeds as well as on thistles in feeders right here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Birders and photographers are pointing binoculars and cameras to the trees and feeders to get a closer view or snapshot of these handsome northerly visitors. Amid the chatter of birders and photographers are the insistent, buzzing calls of Pine Siskins, the most common of the four winter birds visiting the Garden.

Typically you'll see some siskins in northern Illinois and at the Garden every winter, but this is a banner year for these lovely little birds — with more than 30 visible at one time. Just within the last two weeks of January, flocks of Common Redpolls have been joining the siskins, and some birders have even spotted the rarest of the rare, a Hoary Redpoll. A flock of 50 White-winged Crossbills has been seen sporadically for several days in a row enjoying the seeds from cones of a black hills spruce near the Enabling Garden. They come and go, and it's anybody's guess when they'll be back for a snack.

Why they are here?

Siskins, redpolls, and crossbills belong to the finch family and usually feed on seeds from trees growing in the northern forests of the United States and Canada. Siskins eat seeds from conifers and readily come to thistle feeders in winter. Redpolls prefer birch seeds, also adding alder, pine, and elm seeds to the menu when necessary. They will also come to feeders with thistle. Occasionally, from the Lenhardt Library in front of the large window facing birch trees, birders may find Common Redpolls having a meal. White-winged Crossbills prefer seeds of spruces with small cones, as well as tamaracks, hemlocks, and to a lesser extent, white pines. They will also eat sunflower seeds from a feeder.

In the summer, all of these birds eat insects and feed them to their young — but in winter, they must rely on tree seeds. And in some winters, smaller-than-normal seed production forces these birds to fly south looking for food at feeders, in garden plantings, and in the wild. Seed production on trees varies from year to year. It is the tree's way of saving energy. But this fall, many trees across the northern region took a break from producing so many seeds. And as huge snowfalls covered the seeds on trees, these birds had to fly further south to look for food. Places like the Chicago Botanic Garden offer respite for these northerly visitors in winter.

How to identify them

PHOTO: pine siskin

Pine Siskin — About the size of a goldfinch, the Pine Siskin has thin streaks all over its body, including the top of its head. Its bill is thin and tiny, and it often has yellow in its tail and wing bars. They are noisy and fun to watch, and are often the least fearless birds at the feeders.

PHOTO: common redpoll

Common Redpoll — Also about the size of a goldfinch, but appearing rounder, the Common Redpoll has a reddish cap on its head, a dark bib, yellow bill, and sometimes rosy pink on the breast. They are able to store seeds in their esophagus for later eating.

PHOTO: common redpoll

Hoary Redpoll — Good luck with this one! It's a whiter, frostier version of the Common Redpoll, but even the hard-core birders don't always agree on the identification of this species. Hang around with the experts at the Enabling Garden and perhaps they can point one out to you.

PHOTO: common redpoll

White-winged Crossbill — The male is bright pink! Seeing a pink bird in an evergreen in winter is quite a sight. The crossbill also has white wing bars and a slightly crossed bill, which enables it to extract seeds from cones. White-winged Crossbills have not entered Illinois in such huge numbers for decades. Wherever there are stands of spruces and other conifers, a flock of crossbills may be feasting. They always seem to be on the fly, so finding them at the Garden is more difficult than finding the siskins and redpolls. But this is the year — so stop by often to see if you can find them.

KEY

Detectability

Regular (expected annually; defined as the average number of individual birds per birding day, week, or month expected by an experienced observer under normal circumstances in the proper habitat at the optimum time of season):

P= Permanent Residents (although wild birds are possible; look for clipped wing)
AB = Abundant (30+ per day)
VC = Very Common (10-30 per day)
C= Common (3-10 per day)
FC = Fairly Common (1-3 per day)
U = Uncommon (2 per week to 1 per day)
VU = Very Uncommon (3 per month to 2 per week)
R = Rare (1-3 per month)

Irregular (absent some years; defined as an average of one record by all observers in the stated number of years):

O = Occasional (1-3 years)
CA = Casual (3-11 years)
AC = Accidental (11+ years)

Designations for winter water birds are based on periods when lakes are mostly icefree.

Breeding

(***) Confirmed
(**) Probable
(*) Possible
(~)  Captive birds

Seasons

Spring (March 6 - June 5)
Summer (June 6 - August 15)
Fall (August 16 - November 30)
Winter (December 1 - March 5)