Speaking of Nature: Pine siskin sighting brings back memories of an irruptive year

  • This pine siskin, photographed in 2012, shows the distinctive yellow streak on the wings that is the hallmark of the species. It also shows the species’ withering, “Why aren’t the feeders filled?” stare. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 11/5/2018 6:00:46 AM

One of the strangest things about getting older is the concept of time. Memories of certain events can be extremely clear, almost like they happened yesterday, but can actually be memories of events that happened long, long ago.

These sorts of things sometimes pop up when thinking about children we have known, whenever we are confronted with the notion that so-and-so is driving now or so-and-so is going to college. For me, however, the most frequent stimuli for these sorts of time travel episodes are memories of birds.

I get the feeling that this is a particular issue for me because of my interest in photography. I sometimes have vivid memories of events that can be reinforced with equally vivid images of what I saw. What isn’t always easy to keep track of is exactly when these events happened. Sometimes I am dead on, but other times I am way off.

On a recent morning, I had a powerful moment of disbelief in how long ago an event happened that was triggered by memories of a bird called a pine siskin (Spinus pinus).

The pine siskin is a small finch that is described as being “rare, sporadic and irruptive” for the warmer months of the year, and is then upgraded to “very infrequent” for our winter months. If I had been consulted, I think I would have described them as being common, but nomadic. Sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t. But that description only applies to Massachusetts. Go up to Maine and pine siskins are common throughout the year. It all depends on your location and the season.

Pine siskins breed in coniferous forests, which are much more common as you head north. In the eastern half of North America, the portion of the siskins’ range where they are common coincides with the border between the U.S. and Canada. Because birds don’t recognize our political boundaries, they are also quite common in that small protrusion we call Maine.

Pine siskins are interesting birds because they are so very strongly associated with seeds. Many of our winter birds will shift from a summertime diet of insects to a wintertime diet of seeds, but siskins focus on seeds throughout the year. They will eat the seeds of grasses and other herbaceous plants, but will also relish the seeds of birch trees, alders, spruces and firs. This dedication to seeds is not without its risks, however.

Every now and then, the trees that siskins depend on have a bad year. Things didn’t go quite right and the seed crop is much lower than usual. Trees can afford to suffer these bad years from time to time, but small animals can’t wait until next year to look for something to eat. So, when times get tough, the tough get going and the siskins will fan out across the landscape in search of better feeding grounds. If they wander into a yard with a nice supply of birdseed, they may actually stay a while.

In my mind, we had an irruptive year for siskins a couple years ago. When I went into my archives and consulted the written records I made, I was astonished to see that the last year with any major siskin presence in my yard was in 2012. Remember 2012? Everyone thought the world was going to end as I recall.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because I happened to see a single pine siskin mixed in with some American goldfinches at my thistle feeder about a week ago. The bird was clearly a finch, but there was something different enough about it that I took a second look. Could this be the year when siskins show up in numbers once again? Who can say? For all I know, you had a huge flock of siskins in your yard last winter and I didn’t see any. But that’s the way of irruptive, nomadic creatures. They don’t consult us, or inform us of their intentions. They just do what they need to do when they need to do it.

The photo I have provided shows you everything you need to know about siskin identification. They are small birds decorated with lots of long streaks of darker feathers on the breast. That streaking pattern extends down the back as well, and the wings are decorated with lovely white stripes along the edges of the secondary feathers of the wings. The real clincher comes in the form of a panel of lemon-yellow feathers in the primary feathers, but this shows up only as a small yellow stripe when the wings are folded across the bird’s back.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in the company of a flock of pine siskins, then you are in for a real treat. They squabble, fight and bustle with energy and activity while showing little concern for the presence of humans. As long as you are still, they will go about their business with you close enough to hear their riotous twittering that includes a distinctive, ascending “zzzzzeeeeee!” note. More often than not, however, you will see them before you hear them.

This is a great reason to stare out the window on a chilly morning, so grab a mug of something warm to drink and give yourself permission to let your mind wander as freely as a flock of these wonderful little nomads. I hope you see a siskin this year.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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