Just today I received a phone call from a customer who was excited about seeing ‘new’ birds on her nyjer (thistle) feeder. She could tell they were different from the lesser goldfinches, but she didn’t know what they were. Based on her description I told her she was seeing pine siskins.
Pine siskins, like lesser goldfinches, love nyjer seed and are very similar to goldfinches in behavior and mannerisms. Pine siskins are gregarious and will cover a mesh nyjer feeder just as the goldfinches do. Pine siskins will readily use either a traditional tube feeder designed for nyjer seed, or mesh feeders such as thistle socks.
Pine siskins are somewhat habitat specific, occurring more commonly in areas where there are pine trees, but the presence of nyjer feeders in non-pine habitats is often enough of an attraction to draw them in. If you live in the Prescott Valley/Chino Valley area, you are less likely to see them compared to someone living in Prescott because of the difference in habitat.
If you are seeing pine siskins now, chances are you will have them all winter. Another species to be on the lookout for at your finch feeder is the American goldfinch, a close relative to the lesser goldfinch. American goldfinches also love nyjer seed and are a fairly common winter visitor to the Prescott area. Many individuals have recently started seeing them in their yard, so they are showing up right now.
Don’t be confused by pictures of American goldfinches in your bird book – while they are wintering here they are in their winter plumage, which is dull and drab compared to their breeding plumage, which is a brilliant yellow. This time of year it pays to really study the birds at your finch feeders, as you could discover that in addition to having lesser goldfinches, you might actually have pine siskins and American goldfinches, too.
Also, don’t be surprised if you ‘lose’ all of your lesser goldfinches this winter. They are considered a partial migrator, meaning a percentage of the total population migrates and a portion stays. You potentially could have lesser goldfinches all winter long, or on the other hand, you might not have any.
While pine siskins are considered a permanent, year round resident of the Prescott area, folks in town generally observe them only in winter. Pine siskins tend to move to higher elevations during the breeding season, then move back down to lower elevations in the winter months.
Pine siskins are an example of a bird species which is somewhat nomadic – some years their numbers will be high, and other years you won’t see any at all. In those off years when you aren’t seeing any, they have probably just moved on to a different part of the region.
The behavior of moving up and down in elevation between breeding and wintering grounds is fairly common for many species that occur in the central Highlands of Arizona. Other examples of local birds which exhibit this behavior include western bluebirds, Townsend’s solitaire, and the gray-headed form of the dark-eyed junco.
Many individuals don’t realize that western bluebirds are common in the Prescott area. During breeding season, western bluebirds tend to inhabit forested areas with large, old-growth ponderosa pine trees. In the wintertime, however, bluebirds move down in elevation where food sources are more abundant and easily found during winter.
Because bluebirds are not seed-eaters, you won’t see them at your bird feeder, but they will readily go to a birdbath or fountain. They also love berries and can be found in areas where there are berry-producing native trees and shrubs such as coffee berry, choke cherry, silk tassel, holly-leaf red berry, and mistletoe.
Many individuals think mistletoe should be eradicated from the trees on their property. I, on the other hand, would recommend leaving at least a portion of the mistletoe as it is a wonderful food source for wild birds, particularly in the wintertime. It is also a favorite of some of our summer visitors, such as phainopeplas.
If you have specific questions or issues related to wild birds which you would like discussed in future articles, you can submit them to Jay’s Bird Barn, 1815 Iron Springs Road, Prescott, AZ 86305 or log onto www.JaysBirdBarn.com and click on ‘Ask Eric’ which will link you with my e-mail address Eric@JaysBirdBarn.com. Until next week, happy birding!
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, a backyard wild bird store which is located at Watters Garden Center, and has been an avid birder for over 40 years.