Pine Siskin (Courtesy of Tom Grey)
For the vast majority of questions you can ask about bird behavior, the answer is “food.” Take the Pine Siskins that have shown up in the past months at nearly every feeder in our area. Why are they here? Because the food that usually sustains them – conifer seeds – in the boreal forests of Canada and the far-northern United States is scarce, and they are migrating south to eat. In years when that food supply is plentiful , we don’t see many of them. But this year they are flooding the United States, coming down as far as Southern California and Florida. This is called an “irruption,” defined as a dramatic, irregular migration of large numbers of birds into an area where they aren’t typically found.
So how do you ID these irrupting Pine Siskins at your feeder? They are small birds (4.5 to 5.5 inches overall) that are very streaky – dark brown streaks run down their breasts, backs, and flanks. They’re in the finch family, and they look a lot like female House Finches, but with some notable differences. First, their bill is slender and sharply pointed – clearly smaller and less bulbous than the House Finch’s. Second, they often show some yellow edges on their wing and tail feathers. Not all Pine Siskins have this yellow tinge (many females do not), so use the bill size and shape as your main ID feature. And finally, when you see Pine Siskins and House Finches together, siskins are smaller overall and have shorter tails.
Female House Finch (Courtesy of Tom Grey)
Now the bad news: Unfortunately, Pine Siskins are particularly susceptible to salmonella, and some members of this year’s irruption are infected and dying. Cases have been reported here in Oakmont. The bacteria can spread rapidly when feeders are crowded, as many are now. If you see lethargic or dead birds in your yard, consider taking your feeder in for several weeks, even a month. This may seem harsh, but it helps keep the birds from congregating and infecting each other. If you find a sick bird, you can call Bird Rescue at 707-523-2473 for help. If you must handle a sick or dead bird, wear gloves.
Especially now, it’s critical to clean your feeders often – at least every month. For a plastic or metal feeder, you can simply soak it in a bucket of hot sudsy water, then dunk it in a 10% solution of bleach. For wooden feeders, use a 30% solution of vinegar instead. Rinse well, and let the feeder dry completely before refilling. Help keep your bird patrons healthy!
Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. Share what you’re seeing. Questions about birds? We’ll try to answer them. And we’ll e-mail you about bird happenings.