The usual crowd of juncos and chickadees is gathered at the bird feeder when a surprise visitor shows up - a pine grosbeak. The grosbeak is a wild finch. Some of the most colorful birds to visit a feeder in Alaska in winter are the wild native finches. Related to the domestic singers kept as pets, wild finches are seed and fruit eaters with stout beaks. Pine grosbeaks are almost as big as robins, and they are the largest of Alaska's wild finches. Males are rosy red in color with black wing feathers edged in white. Mountain ash berries are a popular food in winter, and availability of those red berries varies year to year. When food is scarce in the north, grosbeaks are one of many subarctic birds that exhibit irruptive behavior. Irruptive movements are not regular annual events like migration but occur when birds move in search of food. This brings birds further south than they might usually be seen.
Redpolls, siskins, and crossbills are the other common Alaska finches. The white winged crossbill has a distinctive bill with crossed tips it uses to extract seeds from spruce cones. Redpolls and siskins are the smallest of the wild Alaska finches, about the size of chickadees. Redpolls have a bright red forehead and males have a reddish wash to their brown feathers. Siskins are streaky brown with a yellow wash to their plumage.