We recently did an expose on the American Goldfinch, which is a perfect lead-in to the Pine Siskin, the goldfinch in disguise! Similar in looks but unique in attitude and behavior, Pine Siskins are tiny members of the finch family.
The Spinus Pinus and American Goldfinch often get mistaken for one another given their propensity for flocking together, but there are distinct differences between the two. Whereas American goldfinches may be bright yellow, pine siskins are brown-streaked and have yellow wings. Pine siskins are also smaller than their finch counterparts and have a narrow, fine-tipped bill to help them extract seeds.
Pine siskins also tend to be a little gutsier than goldfinches and can be found tussling with one another mid-air and at bird feeders. It is also not uncommon to see or hear them twittering as a flock. Speaking of their sounds, pine siskins are known for their insistent wheezy twitters and distinctly harsh calls that sound like either a watch winding up or someone tearing a sheet of paper.
Why might you hear these sounds? As previously mentioned, the pine siskin is feisty and has no problem fighting for its food. This bird has a habit of monopolizing bird feeders some winters while being missing in action the next. Don’t take this personally; while some birds may be loyal, pine siskins are simply loyal to food sources. Once they find a place they like, they’ll probably set up camp. If that food supply starts to wane, the pine siskin will move onto whatever location will best serve them next.
Pine siskins’ seemingly erratic range across North America depends on seed crops as well. Their explosions into flight and fluttering about, however, are not totally random; these nomadic and migratory birds actually have a reason for their actions. Banding data suggests that some birds fly west to east whereas others fly north to south. Determining which birds will do what, however, may still be a mystery.
The birds’ nesting and breeding behavior also follows suit as breeding ranges change from year to year and even within the pairs themselves. Some pine siskins nest in loose colonies while others segment off into isolated pairs. Courtship and formation typically begins in winter flocks. Males will fly in circular patterns around females while singing and widely spreading their wings and tails.
Finding the Pine Siskin in Your Backyard
If you hope to spot a pine siskin in your backyard, there are a few tips we can recommend. Firstly, you’re in luck if you live near woods or forests with conifer trees. This is because the pine siskin favors clinging to and hanging upside down from conifer branch tips.
Other tactics for drawing them near could be with food! Hang bird feeders with thistle or nyjer or other small seeds like millet or hulled sunflower seeds, as these are some of the pine siskin’s favorites. This bird also occasionally dabbles in sunflower seeds and suet, so try a few and see what works best!
Cool Facts (literally)
Cold temperatures are a common concern for bird-lovers, but pine siskins are quite resourceful when it comes to navigating the chill. The pine siskin gets through cold winter nights by increasing their metabolic rates to 40% more than “normal” songbirds of similar size. They can keep this going for several hours even when the weather dips below subzero temperatures. In the same vein, these birds can store up to 10% of their body mass in seeds in their “crop” (a part of their esophagus), which can be instrumental for keeping them sustained and nourished when food and warmth are scarce.
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