For the Birds Radio Program: Pine Siskin
(Recording of a Pine Siskin)
The most abundant bird at most Northand feeders this winter is the Pine Siskin. This tiny streaked bird is so non-descript that many people just call it a finch and leave it at that. It resembles a redpoll, except that it’s bill is dark and it lacks a redpoll’s crimson forehead. During summer siskins are probably the most abundant bird in many areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, but they’re seldom seen then, spending their time at treetop level instead of down at feeders. If you don’t recognize their chittering notes and their zippy song, you won’t even know they’re around.
Siskins take their name from the Swedish word “siska,” for a chirper. They’re closely related to goldfinches and pet canaries, but the only evidence of this relationship in a siskin’s plumage is the bright yellow wingbars. Since they’re so drab, people never call them “wild canaries.”
The Pine Siskin is a tiny bird–it weighs only half an ounce. It’s also one of our tamest birds–during frigid spells in winter it’s not hard to tame at least one siskin to take seed from your hand. As with most birds that tame readily, siskins are quite capable of learning. Laboratory studies show that many songbirds’ behavior patterns depend mostly on instinct, but a few, like the Pine Siskin, are fairly intelligent by human standards.
The oldest Pine Siskin on record lived for 11 years at the National Zoo in Washington. In the wild, siskins have survived as long as 7 years. They eat mostly seeds–from conifers and alders, but in summer they eat quite a few insects as well. Siskins are nomads. Their flocks move all around the northern forests from season to season. Some winters they are absent from Northland towns, yet other winters they are abundant, as in this year.
At bird feeders they eat sunflower seed and niger seed– also known as thistle. In my yard they spend quite a bit of time in my children’s sandbox, picking up grit to help them digest this seed diet. They often alight on roads, picking up the salted sand dropped by winter highway crews.
Flocks of siskins in flight are easy to recognize by their calls. They were one of the most abundant migrants over the Lakewood Pumping Station just up the shore from Duluth this fall–14,714 of them were counted during migration. But this bird is probably the hardest species of all to count accurately–each flock is tightly formed, and undulates past at quick speeds, but the birds shift position within the flock constantly.
My favorite story about siskins is from a Massachusetts bird-watcher who used to sleep with his window open even in the dead of winter. If he was late getting up to fill his feeder, siskins would fly right into his bedroom and tug at his hair or tweak his ear. Once he tried to catch a few more winks by burying his head under the blankets, leaving a tunnel to breathe through, but one siskin hopped through the tunnel and nipped him on his nose. Pine Siskins may be nondescript, but they are certainly a bird worth watching.
(Recording of a Pine Siskin)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”