During the weeks between mid-November and mid-December, our yard was atwitter with a large flock of Pine Siskins. These gregarious but scrappy finches are commonly seen at backyard bird feeders in this area during the summer, but I have never noticed them in such large numbers so late in the season. A few stuck around until the Christmas Bird Count on December 20, but they have since moved on.
At first glance, Pine Siskins appear to be brownish and fairly nondescript. However, closer observation will reveal the brilliant yellow of their wing and tail feathers, colours that flash like sunbeams when they vie for a dining spot or erupt into flight. Not only are these finches interesting to watch, their incessant trilling is a treat to the ears.
Pine Siskins feed on the seeds of both coniferous and deciduous trees, forage on weed seeds, glean insects, and visit sapsucker wells. They also relish road salt. At a bird feeder, they favour nyger seed and sunflower chips but will also eat millet and peck at suet.
Like most finch species, Pine Siskins travel in nomadic flocks, wandering widely and erratically across the northern forests in search of seeds. Every couple of years, they move en masse into the southern and eastern parts of the continent. These mass movements, called irruptions, are not entirely random, as recent banding data indicate that some birds move only in a north-south path while others cross the continent in a west-east direction.
I enjoyed watching and photographing these acrobatic, dexterous and very tetchy little birds, although I was surprised to see how much time they spent scrapping with each other. Between gobbles of food, they would challenge a perceived rival through threatening gestures (lowering their heads, gaping their beaks and spreading their wings and tail). If these threats didn’t prompt the offender to move out of the way, they would resort to verbal assaults, lunges, pecking and spectacular aerial battles that would sometimes take them metres into the air. They quarreled incessantly, even while hanging inverted at the upside down feeder! Despite such cantankerous interactions, these birds spend their entire lives in the presence of their flock, even nesting together in loose colonies.