Pine Siskins

On a cold, crisp, sunny morning with a clear blue sky, the bare limbs of the trees all around the front yard hummed and sizzled with a sibilant rustle. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds hunted together, the male from a perch on top of the bluebird box, the female from branches nearby. Chickadees, Titmice, a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a Downy Woodpecker came and went from the feeder. A Pine Warbler sang.

Then – zzhrreeeeee. The strangely entrancing, rising, metallic call of a Pine Siskin emerged from the low, constant sizzle of calls in the trees, mingled with the mews of American Goldfinches. A Pine Siskin flew to the feeder, quickly joined by two more. Diminutive, slender, brown-streaked birds with short, pointed bills, and a touch of yellow in the wings, Pine Siskins seem to have arrived in great numbers all over this part of Georgia the past few days or weeks.

Pine Siskins breed in more northern and western parts of North America and migrate south for the winter, but their movements are described as nomadic – variable and unpredictable, apparently depending on availability of food sources, especially certain kinds of seeds. Some years they arrive here in large numbers, while in others few are seen. Because we don’t have a thistle feeder this year, I didn’t expect to see many around – but today they were coming to an ordinary block of songbird feed – mostly sunflower seeds, with millet, safflower seeds and peanuts.

Despite their tiny size, Pine Siskins are aggressive and voracious, even fierce feeders, lunging not only at other Siskins, but also at much larger birds, trying to dominate the feeder. The Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and other frequent visitors seemed undeterred while I was watching, more or less ignoring the Siskins – but the Siskins had a big advantage in numbers. I couldn’t see how many were in the trees, but it sounded like quite a few.

I have mixed feelings about Pine Siskins, finding them disconcerting to watch at times, but intriguing and uncommon visitors. And I love to listen to their edgy, sliding, electric calls, like a current of alien music.

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