Bird Watcher's General Store

Pine Siskins
10/30/20


Dear Bird Folks,

Could you please tell me what birds are in the attached photos? A whole flock of them just landed on my feeders.

– Nina, Rick, George, Cindy, Elissa, Steve, Sheryl, Mark, Amy…Cape Cod, MA

Based on the large number of inquiries I’ve received, it’s clear that not everyone is familiar with Pine Siskins; so let me offer a few ID hints. In spite of the fancy name, siskins are basically finches. From a distance, or even up close, siskins resemble the offspring of a female House Finch that mated with a female goldfinch. Don’t ask me to explain how that would work, but that’s what they look like. Pine Siskins are small, brown-streaked birds, just like female House Finches. They also have hints of yellow on their wings and tails, thus the goldfinch reference. In addition, they have deeply notched tails and surprisingly pointy beaks, as if their beaks were specifically sharpened for street fighting. More on that later.

Last week I wrote about Red-breasted Nuthatches and how we’ve seen more than our usual share this fall. The reason for the influx is attributed to a natural food shortage in Canada. The same explanation applies to the siskins, but there is one difference. Nuthatches are found on Cape Cod year-round, but siskin sightings are more erratic and we may go years without seeing any. Also, siskins typically travel in large flocks, so instead of seeing two or three, some people are getting forty or fifty. This is true for nearly everyone except for one poor guy who only has one…but it’s a cute one.

I was feeling bad about my lone siskin, when I received a text message from Amy, whose yard always seems to get the best birds. She said her feeders were loaded with siskins and invited me over to see them. A minute later I was in the car and heading to Amy’s house. Chasing after birds is always a gamble. It only takes one passing hawk or a screaming Blue Jay to send the entire flock off in all directions. But when we arrived Amy was waiting for us, calmly pointing to her feeders, which were covered in siskins, lots and lots of siskins. I was psyched to see so many of them, but my wife was totally disappointed. “They’re just brown little birds,” she complained. She then turned to Amy and started talking about… Actually, I have no idea what they were saying to each other; I was too focused on the birds.

Many of this year’s visiting nuthatches were slow to discover my birdseed, perhaps because they simply aren’t familiar with seeing feeders in the wilder parts of Canada. Amy’s siskins had no such hesitation. They were eating her seed like it was the cure for the pandemic. Each feeder had copious numbers of birds jockeying for position and it was fun to watch their dynamics. Pine Siskins are highly gregarious, traveling and feeding in tight flocks. But they’re also feisty little birds, quickly challenging any bird that intrudes on their personal space. An upset siskin would launch at a trespasser with its street-fighter beak, while also spreading its wings and tail. When spread out, siskin tails and wings reveal significant patches of bright yellow. I pointed out these flashes of color to my wife, but she still wasn’t impressed. She’s tough to entertain. Pine Siskins are primarily seedeaters, feeding on cone seeds or the seeds of a great variety of other plants and grasses. They will also readily eat off the ground, picking up whatever scraps their flock mates drop. The birds in Amy’s yard were chowing down on hulled sunflower seeds, but siskins are also notorious for ingesting large quantities of thistle seed, aka, niger, aka, Nyjer, aka, whatever term they are using for it this week.

For anyone who isn’t Nina, Rick, George, Cindy, Elissa, Steve, Sheryl, Mark or Amy, or hasn’t had a yard filled with their own siskins, you can also look for them in more natural locations, such as any of our area community gardens. I should also point out that siskins are amazingly tame. The birds on Amy’s feeder allowed me to get within a few feet. I just had to be careful not to get too close. I didn’t want to end up on the receiving end of one of those street-fighter beaks. That would have been bad, although my wife would have been entertained…finally.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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