For the Birds Radio Program: Pine Siskin

Original Air Date: Feb. 8, 1989

Pine Siskins are suddenly back. (3:54)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

The zippiest sound of a Northland winter is the cheerful buzz of a Pine Siskin.

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

These hardy finches may be just a dull grayish-brown with streaks on their breasts, but they betray their close relationship to goldfinches with their golden yellow wingbars.

Pine Siskins are finally back at many Northland feeders after an inexplicable absence. About 50 suddenly materialized at my feeder January 24, and have been coming on and off since then.

Pine Siskins, like other northern finches, are nomads, wandering throughout the far north and mountain country, as far south as Mexico. They eat the seeds of spruce and pine, and because their food source is far above the snow-covered ground, they can easily winter in the Northland, as long as there’s a good cone crop. But good cone crops can be anywhere—these birds wander restlessly in all directions in all seasons, and no one can really predict which winters they will grace us with their presence.

The classification of American sparrows and finches was recently changed by the American Ornithologists’ Union to agree with the British Ornithologists’ Union’s taxonomy. For a long time our cardinal, sparrows, grosbeaks, and finches were all considered to belong to the same family, based on their thick bills and seed-eating habits. These birds could all be found near each other in field guides. But in 1983, ornithologists issued a new edition of the checklist of North American birds, putting the cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, all native American sparrows, longspurs, and the Snow Bunting into one family along with warblers and tanagers, and put the Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finch, goldfinch, redpolls, crossbills, and the Pine Siskin in a completely separate family. A lot of people complain that the change makes absolutely no sense—after all, it seems obvious that Pine Siskins should be related to sparrows–they’re all drab, streaked little seed eaters, and it seems equally obvious that cardinals and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks should be related to Evening and Pine Grosbeaks. So why the nitpicking by a pack of taxonomists?

Actually, in spite of the similarities, there are quite a few differences between the two groups of finches. The cardueline finches—that is, the siskins, goldfinches, redpolls, crossbills, and Evening and Pine Grosbeaks—feed their young regurgitated seed instead of insects and nest in colonies. The emberizids–the cardinal, sparrows, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo and Snow Bunting, and longspurs—feed their young insects, not seeds and defend large territories against their own species. In spring male Cardinals and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks first establish as large a territory as they can defend, then accept a mate, and then select a nest site. Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins first choose a mate within the flock, then choose a nest site where the whole gang can be together, and then establish a small territory around the nest. Members of the siskin/ Evening Grosbeak family find their food outside their nesting territories, while members of the cardinal/Rose-breasted Grosbeak family do just about all their feeding within their territories. And besides the many behavioral differences, there’s a physical difference between the two groups—the siskin family has 9 primary wing feathers while the cardinal family has 10.

Of course Pine Siskins don’t much care what group ornithologists place them in—their zippy song of good cheer sounds just the same now as it did before the taxonomic change.

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”