The Pine Siskin is a unique finch with a unique name, at least in North America; the name originates from Eurasia where there are many siskin species. Though probably onomatopoeic to some degree (they make many metallic noises in their chattering songs that are close to “sisk”), the name came to English from Slavic languages via German. In general, siskins are highly nomadic and a classic irruptive species that can move great distances in search of abundant food in the winter. Pine Siskins that were banded have been recovered in completely different parts of North America in consecutive years on the same date, Quebec and California being a notable example.
As their name indicates (also their scientific name, Spinus pinus), Pine Siskins associate with conifers, including pines, in many parts of their life cycle. They can be seen year-round in the North Woods, where they nest in loose colonies in coniferous woods. In the rest of Maine, they are generally only seen from fall to spring, roving in flocks between seed sources. This past fall, they were one of the few irruptive species that arrived in significant numbers in Maine, many taking advantage of huge mast crops of Eastern White Pine seeds. You may find Pine Siskins at your feeders this month, as many of the seed crops are eaten or covered in snow. They, like their cousins the goldfinches, prefer small seeds from the aster family, especially thistle. Even easier, you can leave goldenrods and asters standing through the winter as a natural bird feeder!
Backyard Bird of the Month is a feature by Maine Audubon created for the Maine Home Garden News, the newsletter of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension: Garden and Yard
Photo by Jeff Schmoyer