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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: Pine siskins – be ready for the invasion

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…”the pine siskin a great “gateway bird” for kids”

By Bob Confer, photo from Montana Public Radio

In the winter of 2012-2013 pine siskins, little birds from the Far North, invaded the United States by the hundreds of thousands. During most winters they are just casual visitors to the States and could be considered uncommon. But, something happened to the pine cone crop in Canada during 2012, right at the same time that the siskin population exploded. It was the perfect storm. The hungry birds were driven south to fill their bellies.

For many bird watchers, it was a once-in-a-lifetime irruption (which is really the more appropriate word for “invasion”). That winter at my bird feeder I had them by the dozens. Reports from around the country had them at many feeders by the hundreds.

Since then, I’ve had them grace my feeding station during only 3 other winters and I haven’t had them in my backyard in 3 years.

But, I’m getting ready for a really good winter. This fall is giving me the feels of a good year, maybe even something close to 2012. 

In irruptions of years past, my first encounters with siskins would usually occur around Thanksgiving. But, here it is the late-October and they are already here. Last week, I saw a flock of nearly two dozen of them.

I’m not alone. They are being reported in excellent numbers across the northern tier states.

Even Tyler Hoar’s winter finch forecast – famed in birding circles – notes that their might be a strong flight of siskins southward in the 2023-2024 season due to a poor white spruce crop in Canada’s boreal forests. You can see Tyler’s full report about various species of interest at: https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2023-20240

If you are wondering if you might have siskins in your yard, look skyward to the tree tops for flocks of a half-dozen to 30 tiny birds. Their manner of flight quickly identifies them. Whenever travelling in flocks, they quickly bunch up when taking off, then just as quickly separate into undulating single entities.

Siskins are finches that sort of look like sparrows. They are much smaller than your typical sparrow (like the English sparrow) and are closer in size to the diminutive chipping sparrows you have in your yard in the summer. To most, they would seem almost non-descript, with a dark wing and a brown and white streaked body. What gives them away is the small patches of yellow on their wings and at the base of their tails.

Siskins have a unique call, quite unlike other members of the finch family. Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds describes it as “a buzzy shreeee” – it’s an upwardly-inflected high-pitched sound that often competitively devolves into a coarse version of the same.

To bring siskins to your yard and keep them there this winter you need to feed them seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds won’t do it. Their small, pointy breaks cannot crack such larges seeds. Instead, they need little ones like nyjer seed (often called thistle although it is not a thistle). Those seeds are best offered through a standard tube feeder or better yet a special thistle feeder that is a tubular mesh wall through which the siskins pull the nyjer seeds.

The birds are very social. Bring one to your feeder and he’ll bring his friends, who will bring theirs. In an irruption such as the one underway, as winter approaches you could have at least a dozen at your feeder every day most all day.

You won’t regret it once you do. Siskins are ridiculously tame. When they frequented my yard in past winters I would routinely walk right up to the feeder to visit them and the birds would continue to eat with my face just inches from theirs. You can quickly train them, too, to eat out of your hand. They will even be accustomed to your habits of when you feed them — they will wait for feed time and scold you if you are off schedule.

This all makes the pine siskin a great “gateway bird” for kids. Introduce them to the wonders of these birds – let them see them up close and personal and feed them out of their hands – and you can get a child more interested in nature and less interested in video games and TV. A love of the outdoors starts somewhere, and siskins actually make for a good starting point. Who knows – these friendly cherubs might even rekindle your love affair with nature.

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