You may think by the title of this post that I’m talking about Blue Jays, or perhaps squirrels, but that’s obviously not the subject of the photo above. No, the title refers to a couple of visitors we had to our feeders yesterday, a species we hadn’t seen around our house since the fall, and even then the ones we saw weren’t stopping to hang around. There were just two of them at the nyger feeders, chowing down with a large flock of American Goldfinches. Can you pick her out in the photo above?
Here’s a better look at the culprit, a little brown streaky bird that comfortably falls into the “little brown job” category. Pine Siskins are a type of finch that breeds in coniferous forests through most of Ontario, but more abundantly in the north (reflecting the relative abundance of their preferred habitat). They feed on the seeds of conifers, particularly White Spruce, White Cedar and Eastern Hemlock, and in years where these species produce low crops in the north the birds will irrupt south where they are frequently seen at feeders. They’ll often hang out at the nyger feeders with goldfinches, House and Purple finches, and redpolls, although depending on the number of perches you have in your feeder assortment usually the flocks don’t intermingle too much.
Superficially the siskins may resemble females of the different Finch species (that is, House, Purple and Cassin’s), but the siskins are noticably smaller than the other species, slimmer, and with needle-sharp bills compared to the thick, bulky finches’ bills. They usually show some sort of wingbar, and, most tellingly, they all sport yellow in the wings, although it can be fairly reduced in females (such as this one). You can just see the yellow edging to the wing feathers in this photo. If you’re outside listening to a flock, their basic chittering sounds like a standard finchy noise, but is periodically punctuated by a characteristic, long, buzzy, rising “Zreeeeee!”
Population levels are hard to monitor because of the tendency of individuals to wander in response to variable food availability – one year the big crops will be over here, the next they’ll be in this other spot, and so counts at any given spot will fluctuate greatly. This is true of both winter and summer populations, since there’s no point in raising a brood in an area where there’s no food. Pooling Christmas Bird Count results from Canada and the US since 1950 show no real long-term trend in populations. However, they do show huge variation in abundance from one year to the next, almost biennially. It’s an interesting graph; you can dial up more CBC results here.
Siskins don’t share the feeders well. This scene may look relatively peaceful, but it was one of just a handful of photos I got that looked like that. Most photos showed variations on this theme:
The siskins would throw out their wings and extend their heads to snap at the neighbouring goldfinches. Goldfinches squabble among themselves a fair bit, but usually aren’t all that forceful about it. They’ll stand up to each other, snap back and forth, before one finally gives in. They all respected the siskins, however.
Okay, okay! Don’t hurt me! The seed’s all yours!
Often departing rapidly. Check out the yellow in the wings.
Hey, shove over, punk! You’re in my personal space!
Your mama had chicken legs!
Finally. Room to eat in peace.