The Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus), a small, gregarious finch closely related to the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), is an irregular visitor to our area. This fall (2008) has seen a tremendous movement of this species into the northeast, likely due to food shortages in the boreal forests to our north in Canada and northern New England and New York.
This species is much the same size and shape as a Goldfinch, with slightly more pointed wings and tail tips, and with a slightly thinner, more pointed bill. The upperparts are a light grayish-brown overlaid with darker brown to blackish streaking, while the underparts are very light brown to white, also overlaid with dark brown streaking, save for an oval-shaped white to very light brown patch in the center of the belly. The wings are black to dark brown, with wingbars and primary edgings ranging from whitish to yellow (males tend to have the most yellow). The upperside of the tail is dark brown to black, with varying amounts of yellowish at the edges, and the underside is dark brown to black in females, and dark only at the tip in males, with yellow replacing the dark brown on most of the tail’s underside. A yellow wingstripe is visible in flight, especially when the bird is backlit. The overall effect is of a rather drab, stripy, stubby little finch.
Siskins have several distinctive call notes—the most often heard, especially from birds in flight, is a high, ringing “tillyeer!” which is often useful for detecting their presence. Less often, a raspy, rising “zhrrreee” and a quiet, low “chut-chut” or “chut-chut-chut” are heard.
As their name suggests, Pine Siskins are often associated with conifers: pines, spruces, firs, larches, and arborvitae are all used for food, cover, and nesting. They will also often eat birch and alder seeds. Siskins are early nesters, starting breeding activity in late winter and early spring, and were once discovered nest building in upstate New York as early as February 19.
Outside the breeding season, this species is usually found in small to large flocks and many, many, such flocks have been moving through our area in fall. One year, from mid-October through mid-November, a total of 13,226 siskins have been recorded whizzing by our own Chestnut Ridge Hawkwatch in locust-like swarms on their way south, with a single-day high of 2,524 on October 13. Weighing in at an average of 0.53 ounce each (according to the Sibley Guide to Birds), 13,226 of these birds works out to a little over 439 pounds of siskins that season, a hefty number for such a small bird.
Some coastal locations have recorded even higher numbers, with a single-day total of 6,800 reported at Jones Beach on the morning of November 10, 2008, and a season total of 24,406 (808 pounds!) at the Lighthouse Point Hawkwatch in Connecticut. These huge fall numbers probably indicate that there will be at least some, and possibly many, of these little finches hanging around Westchester and Putnam counties in winter, so be sure to keep an eye out for them at your feeder, and to stock up on thistle seed.
Pine siskins will make short order of any thistle in your feeders, so it’s wise to leave some Echinacea seed heads in your gardens for these tiny birds to feast on.