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A Blizzard of Siskins

It was a birdy week at the Faherty household. Which is good, because I rarely leave the household. But the birding is so good this time of year, sometimes you don’t have to. A slightly tardy Scarlet Tanager visited my birdbath several times over two days, as did several Blackpoll Warblers and a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A Peregrine Falcon streaking by with prey last week became yard species number 140, while a sneaky Cooper’s Hawk stalked my birds more than once. But one flock of small, streaky birds I saw descend from the sky on Sunday is what I’d like to talk about. Because, folks, we are in the midst of a blizzard of siskins.

Each late summer, though we’re still in shorts, birders start to wonder what the winter bird scene might be like. That’s because it’s when a Canadian biologist named Ron Pittaway provided a highly anticipated annual forecast, compiling information on tree seed crops and summer finch distribution from a network of collaborators across the boreal forests. Using this information, this Nostradamus of Nuthatches predicted what winter birds we might see here, south of the border.

Ron retired this year, but a guy named Tyler Hoar has assumed the mantle of finch forecaster. That’s right – the new winter bird guy is named “Hoar”, as in frosty, and as in Hoary Redpoll, one of the finches he forecasts. I assume that wasn’t the primary factor in his selection. In any case, Mr. Hoar indeed predicted we would see siskins south of Canada, just not quite so many.

Pine Siskins are a small, brown, streaky finch of the sort only a birder might love. They breed in coniferous forests from eastern Canada to Alaska, then south as far as the piney mountains of Guatemala. Like other winter finches, they are what we call “irruptive”, meaning they come charging south, unannounced, at unpredictable intervals, sometimes years apart. Here, it all depends on cone seed production up in Canada. A few had been trickling through the Cape and Islands throughout late September, mostly as calling flyovers. But no more than usual.

Then, this week, the floodgates opened. Is it an invasion? An irruption? Or maybe an incursion? That’s between you and your Thesaurus. The important thing is there are lots of them.  A thousand each were tallied at the west end of Nantucket and on Tuckernuck on the 9th. Folks around the Cape were seeing 50 or more at a time, some over 100. The last couple of days people on the islands are seeing even more of a fallout, with yards and decks reportedly covered in siskins. The way this is developing, you could look out your window right now to find one of these feathered hordes descending upon your seed stores.

If you want to attract and keep some siskins in your own yard, a nyjer seed feeder is your best bet – those tiny seeds we used to wrongly call “thistle”. If you get big numbers, spread some on the ground, because that new tube feeder can’t accommodate 100 hungry finches. Wild Birds Unlimited claims rats don’t bother with nyjer seed, and I know squirrels generally don’t either. The siskins will likely hoover it up before you attract rats, anyway.

Looks-wise, you might not find siskins suitable for framing. But whether you call it an invasion, an incursion, or an irruption, when a chaotic flock suddenly takes over your yard, with their charming zipper calls and flashes of yellow in the wings and tail, you might just fall in love with the little seed-sucking machine that is the Pine Siskin.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.