The Strange Uneasiness of Watching Pine Siskins

Plain little brown-streaked birds with thin, sharp bills and a touch of yellow in their wings – Pine Siskins have arrived at the feeders behind our house. The way they swarm the feeders in a frenzy of competition and feeding, from a short distance they look more like fluttering moths than birds.

For me, it’s a life bird. I’ve never seen a Pine Siskin before yesterday. But I had studied my field guides and knew what to watch for because there have been many reports of Pine Siskins in this area this year. So I was hoping to see them here, but had almost given up – and was surprised and delighted to have three dozen or more show up and stay around for at least a couple of days.

But I’ve discovered that I find watching the Pine Siskins somewhat disconcerting. There’s something about the constant competition and the frenzied pace that, while interesting, is sort of unsettling. It’s not just that there are so many of them, or that they’re in a flock – I love watching a large flock of blackbirds, for instance, spread out across a yard and feeding in the grass, flying up together in a hollow whoosh of wings. It’s the raw competitiveness, and the nervous energy and anxious aggressiveness among the little Siskins that’s disturbing. Watching them makes me feel edgy and uneasy.

Pine Siskins – closely related to our much more familiar American Goldfinches – breed in the northern forests of North America, especially in Canada and the far northeast and western U.S, and south through the Appalachians. They are known as an irruptive species, meaning they sometimes move south in large numbers in the winter, while in other years, very few are seen.

I first saw them yesterday morning while I was watching the Pileated Woodpeckers. Three small birds flew down to the birdbath only a few feet away, making rough little chirping noises that weren’t familiar to me. When I turned to look, there they were. Heavily streaked with grayish-brown, with tawny brown faces, darker wings, white wing bars, and – the mark that makes identification easy – a small patch of yellow that barely shows in the folded wings.

After the woodpeckers flew, I walked around to the back deck and found Pine Siskins all over both feeders, and more up in the branches of the oaks. I stood only about five feet away from the sock feeder, and a little further from the tube feeder, and they crowded all over both, stuffing seeds into their bills furiously, and constantly competing to get and keep a spot. Different personalities were immediately obvious – while some were very aggressive, clinging to a feeder and repeatedly fending off other birds, others seemed more passive, lurking in the branches or on the deck rail, waiting for a spot to open up – and jumping in as soon as one did. One or two calmer individuals seemed content to feed on thistle seed that had fallen onto the deck.

I watched for a few minutes as one particularly aggressive Siskin kept all others away from the sock feeder. Whenever another bird approached, it flared its wings and lunged at the newcomer, chasing it away. Meanwhile, most of the Goldfinches seemed to have backed off from the invasion, at least to begin with. Several sat in the branches nearby and mewed. Only one plump, sturdy-looking Goldfinch wasn’t intimidated. It clung to the feeder and kept eating, ignoring the little Siskin bully, and pretty soon the Siskin left it alone and the two of them stuffed their bills together, having the feeder to themselves for a while.

The Siskins chirped and flew around me in a whir of motion, and in some ways I enjoyed watching them, studying their markings and different behaviors. They’re often sideways or upside down on the sock feeder, showing a pale, feathered area under the tail that’s mostly white with a pretty pattern of brown spots.

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