By Gavia Aquila and Matthew A. Young:
A few weeks back when we knew an epic finch flight was on our doorsteps, there was increasing discussion about finch flight calls and how tricky they can be to identify or tell apart from one another. A number of people in the Finches, Irruptions and Mast Crops FB group mentioned that it would be nice to have one place they could easily go to as a quick Audio Flight Call ID guide. We should add that for this simple guide, where we cover just primarily the two main calls for each species, that we are defining a “call” as a brief sound of simple acoustic structure- a jip, cheeer, klee-you, cheep, chatter, etc
As we gear up for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count period, taking place from mid- December into early January, we wanted to get this simple, eastern-focused flight call primer out to the finch community so one could sharpen their field ID skills. Finches can be challenging to tell apart when flying over, but they can be identifiable with a little practice. We hope this helps people tell apart the Pine Grosbeak “tee-tee-tew” from the similar “tee-hee-you-wee” of Purple Finch, or the dry, mechanical “chyet-chyet-chyet” of the White-winged Crossbill from the quicker, more chattery and complex “tchet-tchet-tchet” of the Common Redpoll. We hope everyone has a fun, safe, socially-distanced season counting birds during the upcoming CBCs.
Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)
Call Descriptions: A series of high, sweet, tingling, and often faint whistles (usually 2-4 whistles in a series).
Flight call: “Tee-tee-tew” yellowlegs type call
Secondary call: pee-lee-ju call
Similar sounding species: Pine Grosbeak “tee-tee-tew” similar to Purple Finch’s “tee-hee-you-wee,” but usually higher in pitch, more relaxed (more space between notes and less rushed), clearer, and with a more “tingling” quality. Pine Grosbeak’s “tee-tee-tew” overall more monotone; Purple Finch’s “tee-hee-you-wee,” generally goes down and up more conspicuously, sounding less monotone.
For more on Pine Grosbeak see here: https://finchnetwork.org/species/grosbeaks/pine-grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
Call Descriptions (only Type 3 flight call occurs in east): A loud, somewhat emphatic “beer”/“cheer”; also a lower, hoarsier trill; trill often paired with “beer”/“cheer” flight calls.
Flight call: “beer”
Secondary call: trill
Similar sounding species: Other Evening Grosbeak call Types in west, House Sparrow in the east.
For more on Evening Grosbeak: https://finchnetwork.org/species/grosbeaks/the-evening-grosbeak-project
Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus)
Call descriptions: Primary flight call a soft, distinctive very short flat “pik”; also a “tee-hee-you-wee” similar to Pine Grosbeak.
Flight calls: “pik”
Secondary call: Tee-hee-you-wee calls
Similar sounding species: Similar sounding species: When the Purple Finch gives a series of low, somewhat soft, “tightly-knit” tee-hee-you-wee whistles, it can generally sound similar to Pine Grosbeak (see above for more differences between Pine Grosbeak’s main flight call: “tee-tee-tew”), but lower, quieter, and courser:
For more on Purple Finch: https://finchnetwork.org/species/rosefinches/purple-finch
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)
Call descriptions: A relatively clear, sweet, two-parted whistle: “su-yeep”; also a plainer, short, often faint, and more monotone individual whistle, often given singularly and in twos.
Flight call: su-yeep call
Secondary call: “hee” “hee-hee” “hee-you” calls
Similar sounding species: Somewhat similar to Eastern Type 10 Red Crossbill
For more on House Finch: https://finchnetwork.org/species/rosefinches/house-finch
Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea)
Call descriptions: A complex, course “tchet” notes given in singles, doubles, and sometimes triples; as well, a rising, relatively deep whistle (“dreweeee”) with a noticeable dip and a distinctive, course trill (“jzzzzz”); for whistle, note combination of low quality, overall short length and especially distinctive dip at the beginning.
Flight call: “tchet-tchet” “tchet” “tchet-tchet-tchet”
Secondary call: “jzzzzz” and “dreweee”
Similar sounding species: Hoary Redpoll is very similar to Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill and the Waaeeee” of Pine Siskin can sound similar to the Common Redpoll “dreweee” and American Goldfinch “vee-vu-veee (see additional notes at bottom for the more)
For more on Common Redpoll: https://finchnetwork.org/species/redpolls/common-redpoll
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus)
Call descriptions: A complex, rolling, somewhat emphatic and very distinctive “klee-you,” and a distinctively long, gradually rising, course “zrreeeeee,” similar to a metal zipline; both very distinctive. Also a low, nasal, rising whistle (“waaeeee”) and quick series of course, low notes (“chut-chu-chu-chu”; see Additional Notes section).
Flight call: “klee-you”
Secondary call: “zrreeeeee”
Similar sounding species: “Waaeeee” of Pine Siskin similar to Common Redpoll “dreweee” and American Goldfinch “vee-vu-veee,” but see below for more on these.
For more on Pine Siskin: https://finchnetwork.org/species/siskins/pine-siskin
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
Call Descriptions: A soft, calm, and relatively high-pitched series of short descending whistles/notes given in twos and fours; distinctive: “potato-chip.” Also, a rising, wavering, and squeaky whistle; distinctive, “vee-vu-vee.”
Flight Call: potato-chip
Secondary Call: “vee-vu-veee”
Similar Sounding Species: Type 1 Red Crossbill, and other goldfinches. See below notes at bottom for addition information.
For more on American Goldfinch: https://finchnetwork.org/species/siskins/american-goldfinch
Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)
Call descriptions: Alternating series of short, generally pure-toned notes given rather quickly; quality of notes varies by type. Jip-jip, whit-whit, chewt-chewt etc. For more detailed specifics on call type see: https://finchnetwork.org/species/crossbills/red-crossbill-loxia
Flight Call Type 1: Quick, descending, dryer “chewt”; chewt-chewt-chewt; rare coastally, and local, even sometimes fairly common in the interior hills.
Flight Call Type 2: Lower, lazier/slower, richer, less quickly descending “cheewp; cheewp-cheewp-cheewp. More commonly found in the interior, but quite local and even rare many years.
Flight Call Type 3: Squeaky, scratchy, hard, and less distinctively audibly descending “chey-et”; cheyet-cheyet-cheyet; most common irruptive in the east, but rare in irruption 2020. Most itrruptive type in te east and can be quite common some years.
Flight Call Type 4: Distinctive, fast, hard, up-and-down, and relatively pure-sounding dew-it; “dewit-dewit-dewiit”; rare in the east but most distinctive call type! Several states (NJ, PA, Delaware, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia) have had first state records in the east this fall; always just 1-2 birds in larger flocks most commonly associated with type 10.
Flight Call Type 10 (eastern): Distinctive, high, up-down “jey-ep”; jeyep-jeyep-jeyep; most common call type in Northeast and by far the most common in the irruption in east Fall 2020. Many southern States have had rare or 1st state records this fall including NC, VA, GA, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Similar sounding species: Other Red Crossbill call types, and eastern Type 10 can sound a bit like a House Finch flight call. Type 4 is most distinctive and Type 1 and 2 hardest to tell apart. Type 3 fairly distinctive as is “eastern” Type 10, but much experience is needed to ID any type in the field, and really all birds should be recorded, analyzed, type identified, and THEN entered into eBird. Birds give excitement calls too, and Tim Spahr and I plan to tackle that topic soon enough.
For even more on Red Crossbill Irruptions and flight calls see: https://ebird.org/news/crossbills-of-north-america-species-and-red-crossbill-call-types/
White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera)
Call descriptions: A distinctive, mechanical, relatively complex, dry “chyet-chyet-chyet,” often given in a series:
Flight call: “chyet-chyet-chyet”
Secondary call: A short, rising, nasal “veet,” given individually and in series. veet-veet” “veet-veet-veet”.
Similar sounding species: Common Redpoll tchets are somewhat similar but differ in being more complex, less mechanical, lazier, and with a distinctive descending aspect (White-winged Crossbill more tchets more monotone and not as descending nor complex as redpoll).
For more on White-winged Crossbill: https://finchnetwork.org/species/crossbills/white-winged-crossbill
Pine Siskin Also a series of dry, low, and coarse “Chut-chu-chu-chu” notes, usually given in short, active flights, as well as a low, rising whistle with a hollow quality, “waaeeee“
Common Redpoll “dreweee” is lower, slightly shorter, with a subtle yet distinctive dip at the beginning and perhaps a slightly stronger nasal quality.
American Goldfinch “vee-vu-veee” is higher, squeakier, and more wavering (less stable and monotone).
White-winged Crossbill: Also a weak, nasal monotonous trumpet note, “Hee”
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Gavia Aquila: Currently a student at Palomar College studying Geography and Anthropology. I have been a birder for a little over 10 years, roughly. I grew up with a love for the environment primarily due to my parents, who took my sister and I around the world in pursuit of birds and wildlife. I took my love for birding to the next level in the Autumn of 2017, when I conducted a small-scale avian migration study along the southern portion of the Merrill Creek property in northwestern New Jersey. The results were amazing! I conducted the study again the following Autumn in 2018. I have birded extensively in countries around the world, and boy is it fun. Particular countries I found the most amazing, bird-wise, include: Ecuador, Colombia, Taiwan, South Africa, Belize, Guatemala, and, of course, the United States. With regards to the biology of birds in general, I like to focus on the study of vocalizations (especially flight calls) and subspecies identification. I moved to northern San Diego in late 2018, and have been loving it since!
For more ID guidance for the up-coming Audubon Christmas Bird Count period, see these three articles below.
ID article on the Hoary Redpolls and the Redpoll Complex:
An article on a more simple approach to Hoary Redpoll ID….and more on where they can be found:
ID article on the Green Morph Pine Siskins: