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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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.

Last year, amidst one of the most brutal winters in memory, I counted just one siskin in my yard all season. It was kind of a letdown, as I had grown to enjoy their company the year prior.

Pine siskins have patches of yellow of their wings and tails. (PHOTO
This year is shaping up – and quickly at that – to be a repeat of 2012. In irruptions of years past, my first encounters with siskins in Niagara County would usually occur around Thanksgiving. But, here it is the third week of October and they are already here. Last weekend, my parents’ feeder was first visited by a dozen of the cheerful birds who have stuck around.

If you are wondering if you might have siskins in your hard, look skyward to the tree tops for flocks of six 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 (the house or 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/Niger 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 his. In an irruption such as the one underway, you should 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. In the winter of 2012-2013 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.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he sometimes finds birds like siskins to be more approachable than human beings. You can follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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