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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Siskins may be plain birds, but they're never dull

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
TOM STROMME/TribuneMike Jacobs is the former editor of the Grand Forks Herald and writes a weekly column focusing on the 65th North Dakota Legislature assembly.2 / 2

The best view of a pine siskin is from behind with its wings spread. That way, the brilliant yellow patches show in the bird's wings and tail and clinch the bird's identification.

From any other angle, a pine siskin is hard to pin down, although it will offer some clues. The siskin is a small bird, smaller than any of the sparrows but close to the size of a redpoll. The siskin is slimmer than the redpoll, though, and its body shape seems more pointed. This impression might be exaggerated because the siskin has a longish bill, not quite but almost outsized in proportion to the bird's otherwise delicate features. The siskin's tail is prominently notched, too, and its wings are long. These features might contribute to the bird's angular aspect.

Siskins are active, even acrobatic birds, and this helps pick them out of a flock of birds. They don't exactly pop out, though.

The plain truth is that pine siskins are plain birds. No red spot on the forehead, no blush on the breast, unlike redpolls. The pine siskin is grayish brown and heavily streaked both top and bottom. The face is lighter, but the pattern is hard to discern. The dark eye does stand out, however, and in good light, or with good optics, it's possible to make out a crescent of darker plumage behind and below the eye and a lighter area with delicate shades of brown and ochre across the face.

Siskins make a buzzing noise, not very loud. That's probably the origin of their common name.

Overall, then, the siskin is an attractive bird, even if it is a little challenging.

Pine siskins are most likely to be seen in our area in winter, when they move down from breeding areas in the north. They're not a dependable winter species, however. Some years, very few siskins show up at the feeder array in our back yard west of Gilby, N.D. Some years, siskins are numerous.

This is an in-between year. The siskins at my feeders are fewer than the common redpolls. I'd say two of every 10 birds foraging on our back porch is a siskin. That means 20 siskins to every 80 redpolls. The siskins are more aggressive than the redpolls, and so they tend to dominate the food supply. This might tend to make them seem more in number than they actually are. Last year was a better year for siskins; the ratio of siskins to redpolls was just about reversed at this time in 2017.

The pine siskin is as irregular in the summer season as in winter. Robert Stewart, in "Breeding Birds of North Dakota," wrote that they nest irregularly throughout North Dakota. Since the book was published 40 years ago, siskins have become more regular as nesters; there are records from Grand Forks County.

A siskin in summer is still a surprise, I think, but that might be because they are harder to see in summer. They prefer fairly dense nesting cover. The Manitoba Naturalists Society, in its "Breeding Birds of Manitoba," declares that siskin nests are "almost invariably in spruce trees."

Unlike redpolls, which are circumpolar, nesting in Eurasia as well as North America, siskins are exclusively American birds, but not exclusively birds of the North. In the mountainous western third of the continent, siskins occur as far south as Guatemala; in the eastern part of North America, nesting siskins don't range very far south of the Canadian border.

The siskin family is a cosmopolitan one. Bird Life International lists seven species worldwide: ours of course, one across Eurasia, one in northern India and neighboring territory, three in South America and one restricted to extreme southern Mexico and northern Guatemala.

Pine siskins really aren't dependable at any point in their range. They are wanderers. The monograph on the species in the American Ornithologists Union's "Birds of North America" notes, "Reproductive schedule and attachment to a particular breeding area appear to be less rigidly fixed in the pine siskin than in many other song birds." This amounts, the monograph says, to "partial indifference to constraints of time and space."

Thus, we can add "adventurous" to our list of adjectives that describes the pine siskin, which so far includes such words as active, acrobatic, aggressive, angular and attractive.

That's quite a list for a plain brown bird.