Pine Siskins in the Backyard

Pine Siskin numbers have really increased lately. The bonanza started on March 26th when I found at least 30 of them along March Valley Road. Since then I’ve observed them on almost all of my birding outings, including at Mud Lake and Sarsparilla Trail last weekend, and all three Stony Swamp trails I visited yesterday. I was hoping they would show up at my feeder during their migration north, and yesterday they finally did.

Pine Siskin

I had just returned from the grocery store and was unloading the car when I saw and heard two fly over the neighbour’s yard to land in a tree across the street. This sighting alone was sufficient for me to add the Pine Siskin to my yard list for the year, even if they didn’t stick around for very long. However, while checking the backyard a little later, I noticed some more in a tree in the yard behind mine – the property behind ours runs perpendicular to ours, as they have a corner property facing the main road, and they recently put up a niger feeder in the back corner. I watched the siskins take turns feeding at the niger feeder, and was thrilled when two of them found their way to my yard!

Pine Siskin

For about an hour the Pine Siskins flew back and forth between the yards. At first I counted about a dozen, then twenty. I saw no more than five or six in my yard at a time, though I think several individuals were present. The House Sparrows and European Starlings kept bumping them off of the feeder, but to my great pleasure they kept returning, with one even stopping by my bird bath for a drink! When at last they left I was shocked by the number of birds in the flock. One small group of about ten or fifteen birds flew by, followed by another small group, and then another, and then another! I estimated at least 40 Pine Siskins were present today. I checked to see if any Common Repolls were in the flock, but didn’t see a single one.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins are considered irruptive “winter finches” as they only visit southern Ontario in the winter when their preferred food – usually the seeds of pines and other conifers such as cedars, larch, hemlock, and spruce – are poor in other parts of the country and abundant in ours. As a result, they only show up in good numbers every two to four years, and it is this scarcity that makes them one of the more desirable winter birds for a birder to see. Fortunately, when they do show up in the south, they can show up in huge numbers, making them easy to find in mixed coniferous forests (if you know their songs and calls). They also readily visit feeders offering small seeds such as niger and black oil sunflower seeds.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins are easily identified by their streaky breast, thin, pointed bill, and varying amount of yellow in their wings. In the winter, they tend to travel together in gregarious flocks, constantly giving their wheezy contact calls while feeding or in flight. Even during the nesting season Pine Siskins are not particularly territorial; they sometimes nest together in loose colonies, often foraging in flocks away from the nests.

Here are some of my photos of a male Pine Siskin at my feeder:

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

As these birds are currently migrating, they may only stick around for a short time; or, given the abundance of feeders in Ottawa, they may linger in the region a while longer. While most will head back up to their breeding grounds in the Boreal forest, it is possible that some individuals may stay and breed far south of the normal breeding range if they find a dependable food source. These cheerful, chattering finches are a welcome addition to my backyard, and I hope they stay a little while longer.

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