Walking out the door one early morning in late winter and I hear the Ponderosa pines abuzz with numerous twitters of tiny birds. Lots of tiny birds. I’d heard of Pine Siskins but hadn’t had the pleasure of focusing in on their company. And here they were, a minor flock of them. Soon these small but nomadic passeriformes of the finch family had taken over my bird feeders. They are enjoyable, gregarious birds that fly with a flash of yellow under sided wings.
When I had thought of Pine Siskins at all the visualization was of a larger bird (wrong), and one somewhat more solitary than not (wrong again). These flashy songbirds are very small, more along the line of a nuthatch or chickadee. And their daily flight pattern is in somewhat tight clusters of a dozen or more birds appearing the feeders at once. Although I have noticed solitary siskins perched on or around the feeders, who are much less shy than their like-sized cousins mentioned above when the photographer is present. Watching them closely I questioned whether they had consumed too many seeds and needed a digestive break.
Pine Siskins have sharp, pointed bills more uniquely shaped and slender than of most finches. Their short, forked tails and pointed wingtips are readily noticeable in flight. Pine Siskins exercise an erratic migratory pattern in response to the seed crops they forage on. These acrobatic creatures are better suited clinging to small branches than hopping about on the ground thus their preferred habitat is the edge lands or open canopies of mixed conifer and deciduous forest even though they will forage gardens, cultivated fields and weedy patches in search of various seeds. It makes sense that Pine Siskins have fondness for the seeds of pines as their name suggests. Although their diverse diet may well account for a highly adaptive range map these small birds cover. That diet includes seeds from other conifers, western larch, cedars, and spruce. Deciduous seeds are also on the menu, birch, alder and maples. Lending itself to an omnivorous appetite they forage for insects, spiders, and grubs throughout the forest canopy occasionally snatching flying insects from the air. And, of course, as mentioned they are frequent fliers at many of our feeders.
After studying birds for a bit I’ll venture to say that my discovery of each bird having some unique-to-itself feature, behavior or characteristic is a well-known fact amongst true birders. Pine Siskin are known for their unpredictable mass movements referred to as ‘irruptions’. This is when migratory patterns shift with some flocks of siskins entering non-usual areas while others fly west-east and still others north-south. Scientists suggest that though these movements are erratic they are not necessarily random. In the wake of an irruptive migratory season some of these birds, especially those with dependable food sources, may breed far outside their normal range. For more info on this check out Project Feeder Watch online.
Not your normal songbird: With some of the Pine Siskins year-round habitat in northern areas and, or high elevation these diminutive birds put on half again as much winter fat as their American Goldfinch relatives and survive cold winter nights by ramping up their metabolic rates—typically 40% higher than a “normal” songbird of their size – that equates to a lot of shivering. To protect their eggs from cold damage the nest is not only highly insulated but the female remains on the brood continuously and is fed by the male throughout the process. And speaking of cold, the temporary seed storage a Pine Siskin has in their crop can total up to as 10% of their body mass equaling enough food energy to get them through several nighttime hours of subzero temperatures (and possibly accounting for their sluggishness at the feeder).
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us that, “the oldest recorded Pine Siskin was at least 8 years, 8 months old when it was found in Michigan in 1966. It had been banded in Pennsylvania in 1958.”
Pine Siskins are the type of migrator that can be abundant one winter and gone the next. As I write this the feeder is quickly falling to the low point and soon the twittering calls of ‘fillitup, fillitup” will be heard throughout the yard. So grab your field glasses, camera and bird book and set-out for a backyard adventure here in the Columbia Highlands. Pine Siskins, if you have them, will be one of the tiny birds clinging to the ends of conifer branches, hanging off pine cones and flashing across the yard or meadow in a cluster with resounding twitters all about. Happy birding…XX