Pine siskins take over the feeders

Like many Northlanders, I keep bird feeders going all winter. I find interesting and entertaining the antics of the birds and squirrels that come to visit throughout the cold season. Looking out to watch each day has been a regular routine all wi...

Several pine siskins take thistle seeds at a feeder. Note the yellow feathers. (Photos by Larry Weber)

Like many Northlanders, I keep bird feeders going all winter. I find interesting and entertaining the antics of the birds and squirrels that come to visit throughout the cold season. Looking out to watch each day has been a regular routine all winter. They desire food and meals from us, but the companionship they give in return is much appreciated.

I have noticed many of these same songbirds feeding on seeds in other parts of the woods and fields. I'm sure that they don't need our handouts to survive the north country winter. We, however, may need them. It's hard to believe that such little bodies can consume so much sunflower and thistle seeds and suet, but I find their presence is worth whatever I spend to feed them.

Unlike some, I do not feed them all year. I begin the feeders at about the first of November and persist through the coldest months, lasting about five and a half to six months until the longer and warmer days of April or May send the birds from the feeders. During these feeding months, perhaps 15-20 species of birds come by. At first we host several migrants until they feel the urge to move south. This is followed by regulars that are quick to accept the free food and never stop arriving, once they discover this site. Others respond sporadically, whenever they get hungry or curious enough to try eating here.

Some winter visitors are slow to learn about the feeders, but once discovered they remain for the balance of the season. And as we reach spring days, these winter visitors move north to be replaced by hungry migrants. There are never two days that are identical in watching the feeder birds. And we observe changes each year. A few years ago, purple finches were the dominant finch at our site. Last year it was goldfinches that prevailed. And this winter, we hosted redpolls and pine siskins.

The dynamics of the feeders have been very apparent in the past months. During December, we watched the feeding activities of black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays and downy and hairy woodpeckers. They never failed to arrive. With the shorter days and chilly weather of the first of the year, the long-anticipated redpolls showed up. They finally discovered the seeds of the feeders after being among the trees and shrubs. It was an adventurous pair that began their presence, but within a week, it was 20; two weeks, 50. In the subzero temperatures of February, we looked out on a pleasant flock of at least 100 redpolls.


But as this short month of winter surprised us with the coldest days of the season, we saw other surprising changes. Shortly after our snowfall on Feb. 10, other finches arrived. Even though we saw goldfinches and purple finches blending with the redpolls, it was another finch, pine siskins, that came to stay. It was amazing how fast the flocks of these birds expanded and how quickly these very active and vocal birds displaced the redpolls.

Now the mixed flocks of redpolls and pine siskins littered the feeders and the ground beneath each day as they devoured seeds. And they kept me active to fill up each day. Once again, it is hard to see how much these tiny birds can go through in a single day. In order to stay warm through the cold, they need to stoke their little furnaces with lots of eating. And they remain very active during this time, showing their demand for much food.

Both redpolls and pine siskins are small, only about 5 inches long. They have body feathers filled with dark streaks and spots. Redpolls live up to their name by having red foreheads (polls) while males also have red on the throat and chest. Pine siskins, close cousins of goldfinches, have yellow feathers on the wings and tail to blend with the streaks. During their jostling for positions on the feeders, they frequently spread wings to show these yellow patterns. They are also more vocal than the redpolls and a constant "wheezy" sound is heard with the flocks.

I estimate that I'll have at least another month of feeder watching. Will the redpolls stay despite all the noise and movements from the pine siskins or will they move on to other feeding sites until spring sends them north? Either way, these finch flocks will dissipate in the spring as they go into the breeding season, but they were a joy to watch in winter.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o .

A mixed flock of redpolls and pine siskins feed on the snow beneath feeders.

What To Read Next
Get Local