The year 2020 will go into the history books as a grim year for a variety of reasons. However, 2020 also has a silver lining for those interested in watching and feeding birds. Many surprising northern-nesting finch species have arrived this fall, but the fall/winter of 2020-21 will be known by Jan and me (and others we know) as “the year of the Pine Siskin irruption”. An irruption happens when the cone crop food fails in these birds’ home territory of Canada’s boreal forest. Drought, fire, disease, spruce budworm outbreaks or other disasters dramatically reduce cone and seed production among spruce, aspen, ash, birch, and other kinds of trees. Irruptions happen when birds that are usually non-migratory do migrate farther south than normal to where food is more available.
These videos shows how it looked at our feeders on many days this fall.
Of course there are other kinds of birds at the feeders, too, but not in huge numbers like the siskins. Pine Siskins are small birds, 4.3-5.5 in. in length, and weighing about 1/2 oz., similar in size to the American Goldfinch.
Pine Siskins are not bright-colored birds. The brightest color is the yellow in some of the wing and tail feathers, especially on some males.
Pine Siskins can be encountered, depending on the year and season, throughout most of North America.
All Seasons – Common
Breeding – Common
Winter – Uncommon
Pine Siskins are not known to nest in West Virginia, but I suspect they might. On several occasions I have encountered flocks during the breeding season while leading field trips or solo hiking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. They are always in the same area — the highest elevation along the beginning of the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail in a red spruce forest.
I wrote about what I consider to be my most remarkable, and somewhat embarrassing, Pine Siskin encounter in my book, “Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads” ( https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/rainbows-bluebirds-and-buffleheads/ ) :
Greg Eddy called me one early July morning and wanted a favor. He was leaving town for a while and had heard Pine Siskins in his neighborhood. Being far north nesters, the siskins shouldn’t be around this area at this time of the year. I agreed to check them out, if I could find them. Greg’s neighborhood was different than most. The lots were larger than most places, and many large trees were left as part of the landscaping. Some of the housing development was more like a forest with houses. I parked in Greg’s driveway and proceeded to the large spruce trees on his property. Knowing that siskins preferred evergreens, I decided to concentrate on areas with groups of pines and spruces. Also, I was hoping that the siskins would be vocal, making them easier to find. Walking around the spruces I saw few birds and none were siskins. I decided to walk the roadways and listen before I went into someone’s yard. A car stopped and the man inside said, “You’re Mr. Beatty, aren’t you? I was at one of your workshops a couple of years back. What are you doing here?”
“There are some unusual birds in the area, and I am trying to find them and determine if they are nesting here,” I said.
He said, “Good luck,” and drove away.
Walking past one house, a lady I knew came over and we talked about what I was doing, as well as what her husband and two children were doing. After our talk I thought, “If I meet anyone else I know, I may be out here all day.”
From behind a nearby house I heard, “Shreeeeeee,”of a Pine Siskin. From the sounds, I knew there was more than one bird. From the roadway I saw a large stand of Scotch pine trees in the middle of five houses, all with their backs to the pines. I went through a yard into the pines. The birds were still singing, “Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee.” They seemed to be right in front of me, but high in the trees. Without warning, a flock of tiny birds flew from the trees, right over my head. There were 14. The flocking habit of the siskins told me they were not nesting, as they were not paired off. However, it was still strange to find them here in July.
I followed the flock into another pine woods behind another home which I could barely see through the trees. The siskins were hiding somewhere in the pines. I could still hear their, “Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee,” calls. To gain a better vantage point, I walked away from the pines and off to the side. Every now and again I caught a glimpse of a siskin, but only for an instant. They took to the air again, and I followed them through my binoculars and found myself looking at a young lady standing on her back porch on the second floor of her house. She was quite attractive with long blond hair and a sparse bikini. As she stood there smiling at me, I stood there still looking at her through the binoculars. She waved. I immediately lowered the binoculars and waved back. Feeling she needed an explanation as to why a strange man was behind her house watching her through binoculars I walked over.
Right away she said, “Come on up.”
There were stairs leading to the porch.
On the porch I thought, “Here I am on this hot day in GI camo pants and a sweaty t-shirt and right in front of me is an attractive young lady in her bikini.” She said, “Please sit down. Would you like some lemonade?”
I responded, “Yes, that would be nice.”
She went inside and soon came out with my drink. Although she never asked me what I was doing, I still needed to justify why I was staring at her through my binoculars. I said, “My name is Bill Beatty and I was checking on some unusual birds in the area. They happened to be in your backyard and when they flew, I followed them with the binoculars and then….there you were.”
Right away she said, “I saw you looking at something in the trees. And I was a bit curious. And when those birds flew past me, I knew you were looking for them.” She continued with, “I wanted to be outside on such a beautiful day. Tomorrow I am getting married.”
“Really,” I said, “Congratulations!”
She thanked me and we sat talking and drinking lemonade. We talked about her excitement and even about the Pine Siskins and why their presence there was so unusual. When I left she wished me luck with the siskins, and I wished her luck with her wedding. I returned to Greg’s house thinking, “That’s enough excitement for one day. I don’t want to press my luck.”
Because we band birds, Jan and I can more accurately determine population densities of the birds in our area compared to people who can only watch birds at their feeders or through binoculars. Amazingly, just in the 2 1/2 months so far of fall/winter 2020-21 there have been the most Pine Siskins I have ever experienced for a season in my 46 years of banding birds. On October 21, 2020 we banded 100 Pine Siskins in one day, and by December 29 we had banded our 200th siskin. Interestingly, when Jan does her weekly, two-day “Project Feederwatch” counts for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology ( https://feederwatch.org/about/detailed-instructions/ ), she doesn’t count anywhere near 100 Pine Siskins seen together at one time. Her numbers are typically in the 20s. However, when we are banding, catching them one-by-one, the numbers are significantly higher.
On some days we will see many birds, as in the videos above. On other days we don’t see even one. Did the large flock move on south? Or did a neighbor have a better feeding station than ours? Were there Coopers or Sharp-shinned Hawks in our area? When the large flocks return, are they the same birds we had before or has another northern flock taken their place? There is no other way to answer the last question except by banding and recapturing the birds. Our banding shows that when one flock of siskins moves on to another feeding area, we are often seeing a completely different flock later. But banding also shows that the first flock sometimes does come back here en masse, meaning that they stayed in the area and did not continue farther south. Can we speculate how many flocks are in the area? Examining our recapture data of the siskins we had banded this year and then re-encountered later in the winter might help with that.
On December 14, Jan and I had a video conference via Zoom scheduled for 10 am. Just before 10, to our delight and chagrin, we noticed an unusual Pine Siskin. The feathers on top of its head were all white — a leucistic “white-crowned” Pine Siskin! We were excited to see this unique bird, but troubled that we didn’t have time to take the photos we wanted. Jan did manage to shoot a few quick pictures before our meeting. After the conference, we looked for the bird all day, but it was gone.
More than a week went by with daily feeder visits of large and small flocks of Pine Siskins. We scanned them all carefully to find the flash of white on the head. No luck! I surmised that the flock with the “white-crowned” siskin had moved south and we would never see it again. I posted the quick photos we had onto several bird-related Facebook groups for West Virginia. One of the responses to my photos was, “I have pics of one of these birds. Are these normal? I can post pics if you would like me to do so.” Hmmm. My first thought was that perhaps this man’s bird was a White-crowned Sparrow or some other bird, but surely not the exact same siskin we had seen. I asked him to post his photos. The photos he posted were definitely of a Pine Siskin — the same one we had seen! He shared the date his photos were taken and where. The “white-crowned” siskin was at his feeders on November 25, two weeks before we had seen it. And, most interesting to me was that he lived only 1 mile from us. Apparently the Pine Siskin flocks were not migrating further south, instead they were visiting different feeders in the same general area. Now, my hopes returned of seeing the “white-crowned” one again and of getting some close photos of this unusual bird.
On December 29 the bird did return. Not only were we able to see it, but, as I was setting up my long lens to take photos, the bird hopped right into a ground trap I had put out less than an hour before! We captured it, banded it, and got the close photos we wanted. Jan was fascinated by the one brown feather on top and by how the white feathers and brown feathers mix at the edges of the patch.
As bird researchers, Jan and I are always questioning and looking for answers. Banding birds helps tremendously in answering a multitude of questions pertaining to birds. And when we see a unique bird, like the leucistic “white-crowned” Pine Siskin, it can be tracked by others who see it and share the information. See “Why Band Birds”: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/pwrc/science/why-do-we-band-birds?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
If you see this bird, please let us know.