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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: House finch solves a backyard mystery

The first reference I found to house finches in the Herald’s online archive was in 1989, when Milt Sather called about a house finch he’d seen in Greenbush, Minn. The column about the sighting was printed Nov. 2 that year.

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Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – A house finch was among the first birds that showed up when I put out my feeder array a few days ago. This was a little surprising. House finches aren’t rare, by any means, but I associate them with downtown and the university campus, where I had often seen them. I just didn’t imagine that the finches would be neighborhood birds. This is especially embarrassing because I’ve been puzzled about a bird I heard singing early in the summer. Of course, when I saw the finch, I made the connection.

    Forty years ago, about the time Suezette and I moved to Grand Forks, there were house finches in the city. The birds had been expanding steadily from the east. They reached the Red River Valley in the late 1980s. The first reference I found in the Herald’s online archive was in 1989, when Milt Sather called about a house finch he’d seen in Greenbush, Minn. The column about the sighting was printed Nov. 2 that year.

    The house finch is a native westerner. These finches were introduced on Long Island, New York, in 1940. They now occur virtually everywhere in the continental United States. The monograph on the species in the American Ornithologists’ monogram on the species calls this “one of the most notable ornithological events of the 20th century in North America.”

    The story of the house finch closely mirrors that of the house sparrow, another bird that has overspread the continent. The house sparrow is a European species introduced – again in New York – in the 1890s. It quickly populated much of the North American continent – to the extent that the birds often were considered a nuisance species.

    House sparrows have declined sharply in the last decade, and this may be linked to the expansion of house finches. The two species compete for nest sites. As the names imply, they prefer buildings.

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    Some part of my life has been spent in search of red-breasted nuthatches, especially on winter bird counts. Most winters, I was successful in finding red-breasted nuthatches. They are reliable winter visitors here.

    There may be other causes for the collapse in the house sparrow population. These birds used to be ubiquitous around grain-handling facilities. They flourished on spilled seed. The grain-handling business has found ways to control spillage, and it may be that the sparrows couldn’t adapt.

    Although the species have similar names, they are not closely related. They are similar in size, as well. But in plumage, they are quite different. House sparrows are brown overall with quite a distinctive gray cap and a black mask across the eyes and onto the throat. House finches are pale gray overall and with a blush of color – pink in the bird I saw – but sometimes a more vivid red or orange and sometimes yellow. In breeding plumage, the males grow brighter, though the color still varies. Post-nuptial birds are less brightly colored and usually show brownish or rust-colored streaks on the breast and belly.

    I was pleased to see a house finch, to welcome it and to solve the mystery of the unfamiliar songster. To be honest, though, I had hoped my first feeder visitor might be a cardinal. I’ve heard them in the neighborhood, but so far I haven’t spotted one in my backyard.

    The usual run of feeder birds has shown up, including white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees, as well as downy woodpeckers. As the weather grows colder, the variety of birds will grow greater. The first strong front from the north should bring the northern sparrows.

    I put up the feeders in anticipation of cold weather – and good sparrow watching.

    The reappearance of avian flu concerned me a little. I took down the feeders during the spring outbreak, while we were still watching birds in our backyard west of Gilby, N.D. I’ve dared to put them up again, because the cold will kill the virus and stop its spread, at least through the winter months.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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