How to identify Pine Siskin
Published: October 21, 2011
“Like a goldfinch wearing camouflage.” I’ve used that phrase before, but I think it’s worth repeating as a capsule description of Pine Siskin.
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The resemblance is no coincidence. Siskins and North American goldfinches have been moved around taxonomically — from the genus Spinus to Carduelis and now back to Spinus — but it’s generally agreed that they’re all close relatives. If you’re preparing to recognize the Pine Siskin, that’s a useful clue.
Just looking at a picture, we might be tempted to compare this streaky brown bird to some native sparrow. In life, though, it gives a different impression. When going from place to place, a siskin tends to fly high, in flocks, with a buoyant, undulating flight like that of a goldfinch. Most of our sparrows, whether in flocks or solitary, tend to fly low, with a more labored action.
Siskins often forage high in treetops, feeding on seeds of conifers and other trees. Native sparrows seldom do this. When siskins are down in weedy fields, as often happens in winter, they clamber about on top of sunflowers, cockleburs, and other plants. Sparrows are more likely to forage on the ground below.
Finally, if we approach sparrows too closely, they usually dive into cover. If we approach a Pine Siskin, it’s likely to look up with a bored expression and go on eating. Although fearless behavior is not a foolproof field mark, it is a surprisingly frequent siskin trait.
As we might expect for social birds of similar habits, siskins often associate with American or Lesser Goldfinches. Many a birder has seen his or her lifer Pine Siskin outside the window, in a goldfinch flock, on a feeder. Direct comparison makes it easy to see that the birds are similar in overall shape, compact and short-tailed, but the siskin’s bill is distinctively narrow and fine-pointed.
The siskin’s most distinctive field mark, the yellow in the wings and tail, merits extra discussion. When the bird is perched, the visible yellow is mainly on the outermost edges of the primaries, secondaries, and outer tail feathers. Like any color on the edges of flight feathers, the yellow is most obvious when the bird is in fresh plumage (in fall) and becomes less and less apparent as the plumage becomes worn in late winter, spring, and early summer. What’s more, most of the yellow on the bases of these feathers is on the inner webs, so it is largely hidden when the wings and tail are folded. A worn Pine Siskin in summer may appear to have no yellow at all until it flies, spreading its wings and tail.
What to look for
Size and shape.
Similar to an American Goldfinch, but with a thinner bill.
Face pattern. Fairly plain, with a vague pale eyebrow leading to a pale area behind brown ear coverts.
Underparts. Streaked, especially along the sides, flanks, and undertail coverts, and usually across the center of the breast also.
Wing pattern. Blackish with buff to whitish wing bars and with yellow bases and edgings on the primaries and secondaries, more obvious in flight.
Tail. Short, and deeply notched at the tip. Yellow edgings on outer tail feathers, mainly toward the base.
Most kinds of birds couldn’t really be called wanderers. Individuals tend to be predictable, showing up in the same places every year. But Pine Siskins, along with a handful of other birds in the “winter finch” category, are a breed apart. Wandering in search of the next good seed crop, they are true nomads.
Pine Siskins spend the summer in woodlands of conifers — not necessarily pines — from southern Alaska across Canada, south into the northern edge of the eastern United States, and far south at high elevations in the western mountains. They often spend the winter in those areas as well, especially if a good cone crop is on the spruces, hemlocks, larches, balsam firs, or other trees. Flocks may move east or west across Canada in search of such a food source, and if they don’t find a good cone crop, the siskins may move en masse out of the forest, flooding the eastern and central states and the lowlands of the West.
Compared with other winter finches, such as redpolls or crossbills, Pine Siskins often go much farther south, and they may move earlier in the fall and later in the spring. After a big winter, it’s not unusual for siskins to remain far to the south until mid-May. There are many isolated records of lingerers that have stayed to nest at southern latitudes, especially in stands of planted pines, thus living up to their name after all.
Kenn Kaufman is the author of the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North
America, Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, and other books about
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