For the Birds Radio Program: Siskins and Crows

Original Air Date: April 24, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about two of the most abundant birds in the Northland this spring, the Pine Siskin and the crow, and how their early nesting is affecting them during this harsh spring. 3:16

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This April has been one of the worst I’ve experienced, with its cruddy weather cruelly following a generally mild winter. Our end of Lake Superior was open through January and February, the ice not appearing until we were all geared up for spring. The warmer than usual conditions in February and early March led some birds to return to the Northland early, a decision they’ve sorely regretted all month. But birds don’t sit around griping about even the ugliest April–they go about their lives accepting each new day as a gift, and even if it’s a gift they’re not particularly excited about, they’re way too polite to let anyone know.

Baby crows and Pine Siskins were born into these rotten conditions. Although crow nests are usually very well hidden high up in spruce trees, baby crows are easy to find by the time they’re a week or two old by their incessant whining for food. Parents who managed to keep the nest a secret for well over a month, carefully limiting all their noisy cawing to places far away from their precious secret, always skulking around in the actual vicinity of the nest, have pretty much given up hope that predators haven’t figured out where the nest is now that the babies are squalling. These early nesting crows won’t have as much of an impact on robins as they do in years when they delay nesting a bit longer–there simply aren’t any baby robins or robin eggs about for them to plunder yet. I’ve watched several crows in my neighborhood stealing dog food from the dog next door, and lugging it off to feed their babies. I wonder if the babies, with their growing bones, wouldn’t do better on Puppy Chow.

Some Pine Siskins are also feeding babies now. Baby Pine Siskins are adorable by just about any standards, but especially after you’ve seen a scrawny, naked two-day-old robin. Siskins quickly get covered with thick down, almost like chicks or ducklings instead of songbirds, and their microscopic size and confused expression are endearing beyond words. Thick down baby jammies are a fine adaptation for a species that schedules its breeding season based on the amount of food available rather than weather conditions.

While the babies are little, the parents take turns incubating, and the one off baby duty is on feeding duty. When it returns to the nest, it regurgitates half-digested seeds to its babies. It sounds gross, but once you’ve fed a jar of strained peas to a human seven-month-old baby, most of which gets smeared on his eyes and nose and hair and the rest of which flows right back out with a healthy supply of drool, the siskin’s method sounds downright aesthetic. It doesn’t take long for the babies to fledge, and then they’ll be following their parents to our bird feeders and fluttering their wings to beg for food. If junky weather gets you down, check out the baby siskins–they can brighten even the most dismal day.