A bird we didn’t know existed is the most common winter finch this year
Back in the fall I covered the annual “winter finch forecast,” where a network of biologists across the northern forests put together their best guesses for what northern songbirds will be doing this winter. These mainly include a group of peripatetic finches who move around somewhat unpredictably in search of food. Instead of migrating following a regular annual schedule, these birds are “irruptive,” meaning they might be here one winter in good numbers then gone the next three, depending on wild seed crops to our north.
Based on the forecast, there was some hope we would have a good overall winter finch year, with numbers of northern species like redpolls, siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks appearing in our woods, fields, and yards. The reality has been more modest, with no real influx of most of these species to the Cape and Islands, but with one really weird exception — the most common winter finch this year, is one we didn’t even know existed until recently.
Outside of the UK, you’d be hard pressed to find a part of the world with more birders and bird researchers than the northeastern US. Despite this, it recently came to light that this previously undescribed type of bird was hiding here, right under our bird-loving noses. For years, though many of us were seeing, photographing, and making audio recordings of them, we were calling them the wrong thing. We knew they were Red Crossbills, but we had the subspecies totally wrong. But thanks to the crossbill-obsessed scientists of the Finch Research Network, and a machine-learning analysis of their calls, we have a new type of Red Crossbill to love – the “old Northeastern Red Crossbill,” also known affectionately as “Type 12” if you’re a finch researcher.
Red Crossbills are absolutely bizarre birds by any standard – these are nomadic finches who wander the continent in search of good cone crops, stopping to breed whenever they find them. They almost exclusively eat seeds from conifers like spruce, pine, and hemlock, which they open with their specialized, deformed-looking bill with the crossed tips. Scientists recognized at least 11 different subspecies, and now 12, separable mainly by their call notes and bill morphology – in general, different subspecies specialize on different cone types, so have different bill shapes. And if you look at sonograms of their little “jip jip” call notes, you can see differences in the shapes that identify the subspecies, or at least the people at the Finch Research Network can.
To be clear, this is not a new discovery so much as a rediscovery. Ornithologists had described this northeastern crossbill in the 19th and early 20th century, only to see it seemingly disappear after tens of millions of acres of northeastern coniferous forests were logged down to nothing. Some modern researchers suspected these Old Northeastern crossbills were still around, and the recent work by the Finch Research Network confirmed that they had been here all along.
So what does this mean for you? Not much, I suspect. But I can tell you where you might find some of these amazing birds who have been hiding in plain sight for decades. On Nantucket, a big flock of Red Crossbills has been around ’Sconset for weeks, and confirmed to be the old Northeastern type by recordings sent to Tim Spahr of the finch network. Red Crossbills have been around here and there on the Cape in decent numbers, with flocks up to a couple dozen, but nowhere consistently.
They won’t come to your feeders, I’m afraid, so your best bet is time in the field with your ears trained for those jaunty call notes, and eyes peeled for flocks of stocky little finches landing in pines. You can use a sound recording app on your phone, or better yet Cornell’s Merlin app, to get recordings, offering a rare opportunity for average people to significantly add to our knowledge of these mysterious little gnomes of the north.