Another Irruptive Species Shows Up

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Feb 3, 2009 | by Adrian Binns

Yet another irruptive boreal species has shown up this winter, the Pine Siskin. It is a small seed eating boreal finch that breeds mainly in coniferous forests across southern Canada and throughout the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. Undoubtedly this southward movement along with White-winged Crossbills this winter is related to a poor showing of cone crops in the north.

Siskins are primarily an arboreal species that are found in noisy gregarious flocks. One often hears their calls, a rising buzzy zeeeeee, before they are seen. They are very active birds foraging in hemlocks, spruces and birches often hanging upside down like crossbills. They will also come down to the ground to feed on seed much like redpolls, which are only being sporadically reported in our area this winter.

Female Pine Siskins most closely resemble a female House Finch, until you pay attention to the slender pointed bill, finer streaking on the flanks, conspicuously notched tail and stronger wing bars. The males show yellow in the wing bar as well as on the wing, which of course is more evident in flight.

The best way to attract Pine Siskins (top rung) is to provide a feeder full of nyjer seed. American Goldfinches (bottom rung), which are resident here are also very fond of nyjer, a small thin black seed with high calorie and oil content. A common misconception is that it is a thistle seed. This likely comes from the fact that since finches favor thistle in the wild, and nyjer looks like thistle, then it must be thistle! It is not.

Siskins often associate with goldfinches, though at the feeder the more aggressive siskins can be seen challenging them. Goldfinches have a small stout bill, are not streaked and tend to be a slightly smaller and a little chunkier than siskins.

photo © adrian binns


  1. giggles on February 4, 2009 at 9:22 AM

    This post confirms, perhaps, my possible spotting of one at my finch feeder a week or so ago…. It was solo, though…. and my best guess based on markings and the deeply nothched tail was a pine sisken…. Didn’t hear a call, and it was solo, as mentioned…and I haven’t seen it since…although the thistle seed is disappearing from the feeder ever so slowly!

  2. patrickphillypa on February 4, 2009 at 2:41 PM

    I live in Huntingdon Valley area of PA and we had a snow storm yesterday which was pretty heavy in our area. When i woke up this morning we had 4 Pine Sisken at our nyjer feeder. They were with a couple Goldfinches and kept flying from our feeder to the mature Cedar trees in our yard to feed. They are covered in cones so they were flying all over the tops of the Cedars to eat, hanging upside down and all. This was only our second time having them as guests to at our feeders, the first time being a couple weeks ago when it snowed.

  3. Adrian Binns on February 6, 2009 at 2:31 PM

    Siskins seem to be showing up everywhere there is nyjer seed available to them. Check every hemlock and spruce tree, even stands of one or two trees for White-winged Crossbills as this has turned out to be an excellent winter for them. Keep on eye on the feeder for Common Redpolls, though rarer here than the other two species, it looks as though it is a good bet that a few will show up this winter.

  4. witsandwiggles on February 7, 2009 at 1:53 PM

    Pine siskins…..definately…but will keep my eyes open for the others you mentioned….with hope! Thanks!

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