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Late winter brings first pine siskin

Pine Siskins are close relatives of the American Goldfinch. Attract them to feeders by offer thistle seed or black oil sunflower seed.  (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By BRYAN STEVENS

Winters, no matter where one lives, can decrease the variety of bird species one sees on a daily basis. I wrote a couple of months ago of my hope that flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area might wing their way south this winter. Irruptions are defined as massive migratory movements into areas far outside typical ranges, almost always motivated by a vital need for food resources. 


My wistful dream for a 2019-20 winter irruption never materialized, but I did finally see a single Pine Siskin at my feeders on Feb. 20. The solitary siskin joined a flock of American Goldfinches that has slowly grown from a mere pair of birds a couple of weeks ago. For Northeast Tennessee, the Pine Siskin is the most likely representative of these birds to put in appearances at feeders. Other so-called Northern finches that at times put in appearances include Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Common Redpolls and Red Crossbills. 


These finches are not the only birds to stage these periodic irruptions. The website Birdsource.org identifies several non-finch species — Red-breasted Nuthatch, Clark’s Nutcracker, Bohemian Waxwing, Black-capped Chickadee and Varied Thrush — that undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the Pine Siskin and the Red Crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in our region.


As mentioned earlier, these irruptions are not usually motivated by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds such as Pine Siskins will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.


The Pine Siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian Siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the Black-capped Siskin, Hooded Siskin, Red Siskin, Black Siskin, Antillean Siskin and Andean Siskin.


Pine Siskins often associate with American Goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.
The American Goldfinch is known by the scientific name Spinus tristis. Other goldfinch cousins in the Spinus genus include Lawrence’s Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch.


Some people quickly discover that a large flock of Pine Siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.


In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.


The siskin isn’t the only late winter arrival. I’ve seen two large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds in recent weeks. These birds usually arrive toward dusk and settle into the stands of cattails near the fish pond. A Northern Mockingbird, which is a surprisingly uncommon visitor at my home, has also been lurking around the edges of the yard. After a slow winter, bird activity appears to be increasing slightly.

Keep alert for some of these feathered visitors in your own yard. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers. Share a sighting or ask a question by emailing me at [email protected]