By Bryan Stevens
A recent email reminded me that some of the birds that visit us during the winter range far beyond our yards and gardens here in Northeast Tennessee.
I received an email from Fred Bergold, a reader who resides in Utah.
“This little warbler flew into our window,” Fred explained in his email, which arrived with photos attached. “My wife picked it off the deck and held it for about half an hour.”
The kind treatment worked. “When it got its bearings back, it flew to the top of our Colorado green spruce,” Fred wrote.
“We feed the local wintering birds black oil sunflower seeds, which many species seem to like,’ Fred continued. “We live in Fruit Heights, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.”
When I looked at the photos Fred provided, I realized that the bird in question wasn’t one of the warblers but a species of small finch known as a pine siskin. I replied to Fred’s email and offered a quick lesson in distinguishing pine siskins from warblers and other small songbirds.
I informed Fred that siskins usually travel in flocks and that they love feeders with sunflower seeds.
I also shared with him that I’ve gotten to travel to his home state of Utah twice since 2003. Getting to see some western species — American dipper, lazuli bunting, western tanager, violet-winged swallow — while visiting the state produced some memorable birding moments.
Winters, no matter where one lives, can decrease the variety of bird species one sees on a daily basis. I often find myself hoping for the excitement produced when flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area expand their range into the region. In addition to pine siskins, birds such as evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls and red crossbills represent a few of these northern finch species that occasionally stage massive migratory movements, or irruptions, into areas far outside their typical ranges.
These finches are not the only birds to stage these periodic irruptions. The website birdsource.org identifies several non-finch species — red-breasted nuthatch, Clark’s nutcracker, bohemian waxwing, black-capped chickadee and varied thrush — that undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the pine siskin and the red crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in our region.
These irruptions are not usually motivated by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds, such as pine siskins, will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.
The pine siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the black-capped siskin, hooded siskin, red siskin, black siskin, Antillean siskin and Andean siskin.
Siskins often associate with American goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.
Some people quickly discover that a large flock of pine siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.
In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.
Next month will offer an opportunity to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Recording visiting birds such as pine siskins is an important component of the GBBC. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb. 16, through Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information. I’ll also focus on the GBBC more in upcoming columns.