The pine siskin is a plain brown bird – that, no one could deny – but siskins are not inconspicuous. The letter “s” at the end of the word is the clue here. Siskins seldom appear alone. Numbers have been building daily at our place west of Gilby, N.D., reaching more than 100 individuals by midweek.

Siskins are active feeders, essentially mobbing the handfuls of sunflower seed that I scatter on the deck just as the sun comes up every morning. They are feisty birds, often confronting one another for what must seem to them to be an especially choice morsel. They signal aggression by lifting their wings. This gives an observer a peek at the only bit of color on the bird, a spot of yellow in the wings and another in the tail.

Otherwise, siskins are plain brown and heavily streaked. Individual birds may show more or fewer white spots, but these aren’t very large or very pronounced, and sometimes not even visible, except in the wings, which have one prominent curved more or less vertical stripe and three or four more or less visible streaks running along the wings toward the tail, which is slightly forked.

Siskins are not the only small brown birds. These are known among birders as “little brown jobs,” who often call them by their initials, l.b.j., which becomes elbeejays when you write it out.

Nevertheless, siskins are instantly recognizable. They are small birds, smaller than any of the sparrows. The only other species they’d likely be confused with is the American goldfinch, which is about the same size but is much lighter and without the heavy streaking.

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The siskins are among those “northern finches” that have been getting so much attention this November. Their breeding range is across Canada and into the United States in the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lake states and northern New England – the boreal belt of the continent.

They are habitues of evergreen and mixed forests, except when they explode southward, as they have done this season. Then, they are likely to show up just about anywhere food is available, which explains their abundance in our backyard.

To be fair to the siskins, they are more dapper in breeding season, when they display more and brighter yellow patches in wings and tail, but we ordinarily don’t see nesting siskins in the Red River Valley. To find nesting siskins, you’d be better off 90 minutes north or east of Grand Forks.

Another of the northern finches has attracted attention this week, too, the white-winged crossbill. Unlike the evening grosbeaks that excited local birders a couple of weeks ago, the crossbills have stayed around. The Grand Cities Bird Club’s listserv – the place to find “breaking news” in the bird world – reported as many as 35 of them in Lincoln Park in Grand Forks as I sat down to write on Wednesday. Alas for me! None have shown up in my backyard.

This is one of two crossbill species in North America. The other is the red crossbill. The chief differences between them are in hue; red crossbills are darker, and white-winged crossbills appear lighter, even pinkish.

White-winged crossbills have prominent white patches in the wings, while red crossbills have unmarked, dark wings.

A backyard owl sighting got quite a lot of attention early in the week. The bird sat in plain sight for much of the day, attracting neighbors and curiosity seekers. The sighting showed up on the listserv. One of the members of the noon Rotary Club mentioned it at our Zoom meeting Tuesday, and when I stopped in Gilby briefly to borrow a tape measure, a friend showed me a picture that her sister had sent of the bird.

That’s pretty wide publicity for a bird sighting.

Great horned owls aren’t rare in our area, especially at this time of year, when northern owls drift southward. Owls are nocturnal, however, rarely moving about much during the day. This explains the owl’s apparent motionlessness. It may also explain the owl’s boldness. A northern owl wouldn’t have as much exposure to people as an urban owl.

As to open country birds, this has been a stingy season. I have yet to see a snowy owl, a species that is emblematic of winter in our area, and I have seen only one rough-legged hawk, which I often refer to as “the November hawk.”

On the other hand, redpoll numbers appear to be increasing. I had seven at my feeders Tuesday, up from three last week.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs