For the Birds Radio Program: Summer of the Siskin

Original Air Date: July 16, 1997

Rescuing a baby Pine Siskin was a lot of trouble, giving an enormous reward. 4:10 (Rerecorded from May 8, 1996)

Audio missing


Whenever a Pine Siskin appears at my feeder, I remember the day when a woman brought me a baby Siskin she rescued from her cat. The chick was a tiny ball of fluff—these goldfinch relatives reproduce when pine or spruce cones are abundant, sometimes hatching young while it’s still quite cold, so the babies grow thick downy feathers more quickly than typical songbirds. This one was barely one and a quarter inches long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tiny stump of a tail. Holding the tiny mite in my hand, I felt an awful sense of responsibility.

This was the first siskin I’d cared for and I wasn’t sure what to feed it. I knew that true finches feed their young regurgitated seeds—my normal baby bird diet wouldn’t fit the bill. Suddenly I remembered that cockatiels also feed their young regurgitated seeds, so I got a cockatiel hand­ feeding mixture at a pet shop, fed it through a plastic medicine dropper, and the baby pigged out.

But there was still an urgent problem. Cat teeth cause puncture wounds. I blew on her feathers to scrutinize the skin, and suddenly she fluttered her wings a second. In her “wingpits” were two red, gaping wounds crusted with dried blood. Cat saliva is rich in bacteria, and these wounds were open pathways to a lung infection. I called up my veterinarian and several other resource people, but no one knew what dose of antibiotic to use on a bird this tiny. My vet and I agreed that we had to try something, so I gave the little thing one drop of amoxycillin six times a day. On the third day, she still seemed to be doing okay, with bright eyes and an eager, hungry mouth.

But her posture seemed a bit odd, her wings sticking out strangely. When I lifted them, I was horrified to discover that air sacs had ballooned out of the bite wounds, jutting out more than half an inch and pulsating with each breath. By the third day, they had grown to over an inch in diameter, each bigger than the bird’s tiny body, and looked about to explode at any moment. I wouldn’t let my children even peek at her—she was so tiny and dear, and so obviously doomed. But she perched confidingly on my shoulder, encouraging me to hope for the best.

By the next week, the gaping air sacs were almost two inches in diameter. She couldn’t close her wings, looking like a child wearing water balloons. I was afraid her wings would be misshaped with this grotesque obstruction, but all I could do was continue the course we were on.

During the third week, the sacs seemed a bit smaller, and by the end of the week they had shrunk to less than an inch. After two more weeks they disappeared under healed skin. After the wound closed, I started taking her outside. She spent her first days of freedom perched on my shoulder or my five-year-old daughter’s head while Katie played on the swing set. When a flock of siskins started visiting my feeder, our little one flew over to meet them and started imitating them, eating natural foods. She took less food from us. She still flew to us occasionally, but within a few weeks she stopped feeding from us, and eventually left with a migrating flock.

At the end of a long, hard winter, Katie finally pulled her tricycle back out of storage. As she rode along the sidewalk, a little siskin flew in on a spring breeze and lighted on her head. Katie and I offered her seeds which she took from our hands, but she refused to come in the house. She was an independent wild bird now, with happy memories of us and a rewarding life of her own.