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Finches take flight southward

Mahoning County Master Gardener volunteer Merabeth Steffen snapped this photo of evening grosbeaks under her feeder. Grosbeaks and other birds not usually spotted in northeast Ohio are present this year as part of a âsuper-flightã that happens once about every decade. (Submitted photo)

Since November, backyard birdwatchers have reported sightings of birds not usually seen at feeders in Ohio. These visitors are native to Canada and are on the move due to food shortages.

This phenomenon is not all that unusual, but because multiple food sources are in short supply, all the winter finches are moving south in large numbers. Birders call this a “super-flight” and it occurs roughly every 10 years.

This southward movement by northern seed-eating birds is called an irruption. These birds depend on the coniferous cone crop of pine, spruce and hemlock as well as the seed of several deciduous varieties for winter survival. If that crop fails, they must look elsewhere.

If the crop failure is over a wide geographic area and involves multiple species of trees, multiple finch species will irrupt at the same time, the “super-flight.”

The species described below are the irruptive finches that might visit your backyard or feeder. Look online or in a field guide for images of these birds.

• The purple finch resembles the common house finch, but the male is a more intense raspberry color. The female is brown with streaks and has a broad white eye stripe. This one is more of an uncommon resident, compared to an irruptive species.

• Red and white-winged crossbills are two of the more unusual visitors. As the name suggests, they have a crossed bill that is designed to extract seeds from conifer cones.

• The common and hoary redpoll is similar in size and shape to our local goldfinch. Their identifying mark is a red patch on the top of the head.

• One of the most common irruptive finches is the pine siskin. They are small and streaked with patches of yellow on the wings.

• The red-breasted nuthatch is considered an honorary finch due to its irruptive behavior. Unlike our common white-breasted variety, it is smaller with a reddish breast. A squeaky ank-ank call announces its presence.

• The most impressive of the group are the grosbeaks. The evening grosbeak is bright yellow, black and white with a large seed-crushing bill. The pine grosbeak males are red and gray and the females have some yellow. They have not been seen in Ohio for many years, though.

To learn more about these birds, go to http://go.osu.edu/superflights.

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