Column: Pine siskins are common to Prescott in wintertime
In last week's column I mentioned that I had a flock of pine siskins at my finch feeder on Thanksgiving Day. After the column came out I discovered in talking to customers here at the bird store that many residents of the Prescott area are unfamiliar with this common species.
When I am talking with a customer about a species with which they are not familiar, I whip out my copy of the "Sibley Guide to Birds." On page 534 in the Sibley Guide you will find not only the pine siskin, but also the three species of goldfinches found in North America: Lawrence's, Lesser and American.
Referencing Carl Tomoff's "Birds of Prescott, Arizona, Checklist," pine siskins are listed as being 'common' in winter, and 'fairly common' in summer. Carl's definition for 'common' is "easily observed in proper habitat each year during appropriate season, often in large numbers."
There are several key words in this definition. First, the words 'proper habitat.' Given the name pine siskin you can surmise that this species can be found in an area with a lot of coniferous trees. The chaparral habitat around Prescott has a lot of juniper and pinyon pines, and there are ponderosa pines in the mountains surrounding Prescott.
Another common habitat for pine siskins is in suburban residential settings where there are nyjer/thistle finch feeders. A pine siskin is actually a finch, and is in the same genus as the three goldfinch species found in North America. This helps explain why pine siskins love nyjer/thistle seed, as do our abundant lesser goldfinches.
Another important phrase in the definition for 'common' species is 'appropriate season.' While there are siskins in the Prescott area year-round, they are more abundant during the winter months.
Pine siskins are an example of a species that exhibits 'irruptive' patterns of occurrence in winter. Some years they will be abundant and widespread, while other years they may be hard to come by. Siskins are somewhat nomadic - like many species dependent upon specific seed crops, they go where the food is most abundant.
Pine siskins can be found from coast to coast, and the northern boundary of their range extends clear up into Alaska and Canada. But where they actually occur depends upon seasonal rainfall, seed production and the severity of winter weather.
Is there a reliable place to see pine siskins in the Prescott area? Besides the possibility of seeing them at your nyjer/thistle feeder, a good place to see them right now is in Granite Basin, in the area south and east of the lake in the dry seasonal creek bed littered with the remains of wild sunflower plants. Pine siskins have a very sharp, pointy beak, which they use to extricate seeds from dead sunflowers heads.
You may have this species in your yard right now and not even realize it. I would suggest using binoculars to look at the birds feeding on your finch feeder, and you might just discover them!
Siskins are a small, brown bird with heavy streaking with a small amount of yellow in their wing and tail feathers. They are similar in size to a goldfinch, and like goldfinches, they usually occur in small flocks - it is not uncommon to have both species together on the feeder at the same time, so look closely.
Happy birding and happy holidays!
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, 1046 Willow Creek Road, Suite 105, Prescott, AZ 86301 or log onto www.JaysBirdBarn.com and click on Ask Eric, which will link you with my e-mail address Eric@JaysBirdBarn.com.
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn and has been an avid birder for over 40 years.