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Categorized | Featured, Outdoors

Expect the Unexpected

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The pine siskin is a North American bird in the finch family. Photo credit: “Carduelis pinus CT7” by Cephas - Own work.

The pine siskin is a North American bird in the finch family. Photo credit: “Carduelis pinus CT7” by Cephas – Own work.


Identification of some critters is difficult. One needs to have a proper frame of mind to expect the unexpected. On November 17 I saw my first Pine Siskins of the year, and that is the only day so far they have been present this year.

They look somewhat like female House Finches and blend into a group of birds at the feeder. The first thing one might want to look at is the bill. Siskins have a narrowed, sharp, pointed bill compared to House Finches’ thicker, heavy bill used for crushing seeds. Pine Siskins seek conifers with small cones like cedars, tamarack, hemlock and spruce that are easier for extracting seeds. Large cone conifers are not suitable, because the cones are difficult for accessing seeds. The seeds are too large and hard in their diet. Conifers with smaller seeds can be eaten and digested more easily. Some seeds are stored in their crop for digestion during the cold subfreezing nights.

Siskins are nomadic birds and move from location to location and one habitat to another. They are encountered in fields eating weed seeds and gather seeds from a variety of deciduous shrubs, in addition to using pine forest like their name indicates. Seasonally their diet adds insects and this is especially true when feeding young.

At winter bird feeders, these small finches spend time on the ground retrieving seeds that other birds have caused to fall and they feed directly from feeders. The recent foot of snow likely brought siskins to the feeder. It is the only time I’ve seen them this year. Their winter arrival brings my annual total to 255 bird species for the year.

Pine Siskins have yellow banding on wing feathers but it might be hidden until they spread their wings. Their tails have yellow along the side but it also may not be evident until they fly. Females and immature birds do not have much yellow making use of color difficult. The birds at the feeder did not show yellow and led me to first to think House Finch. I knew immediately they were not American Goldfinches because goldfinches do not have streaking on their breast. The siskin has heavy streaking on its breast and back. They lack the characteristic red that is found in male House Finches but female House Finches also lack the red.

Generally siskins are sleeker than other finches. Once when I was leading a birding tour, we encountered a bird in late June when visiting good siskin breeding habitat but I did not have my mind set for encountering this species. I spent twenty minutes trying to identify it while others had given up and were waiting for the “all knowledgeable leader” to come through. I was getting frustrated also and the yellow would have helped. It was not actually the lack of yellow that was the problem. The problem was in my head. I was not considering the Pine Siskin as a possibility. It is always important to expect the unexpected in nature niches. The habitat was great for Pine Siskins and finally after about 20 minutes one flashed a little yellow and identification fell into place. I should have recognized it by other characteristics.

It should not have taken so long to make the identification except I had narrowed my thought process too much. One tour participant also thought it should not have taken so long because she needed a restroom break and did not tell me. Instead she began to anger. Fortunately there was a toilet about a half-mile away in a national forest campground. I hope she has forgiven me and hopefully other participants will voice their needs on tours.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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