Golden stripes distinguish the pine siskin – a small finch.

Swirling siskins a dizzying sight in the air

The first time I heard pine siskins, I knew I’d be smitten for life

The first time I heard pine siskins, I knew I’d be smitten for life.

A loud, distinct buzzing sound of rising “zreeees” caught my attention and I looked up to see a large flock of them feeding at the top of a coniferous tree. It’s almost as if they’re all asking the question, “Whazzup” and never getting an answer.

Pine siskins (Carduelis pinus) tend to travel in flocks, and their combined song, once heard, is unmistakable. Few things cheer the air like a flock of siskins twittering high in the treetops, singing their zippy little tune. It’s just a thrill to see dozens of them crowding a birdfeeder while staying just a bill’s length away from one another to avoid collision. Pity this dowdy little finch, which is all too often mistaken for the slightly larger sparrow. True, its allover streaky brown colouration tends to toss it into the LBB category (little brown bird), with one exception – dashing yellow stripes on wings and tail. In birding, as in dining out, always check the bill. Members of the finch family have large upper and lower mandibles with a pointed tip, the better to open and feed on seeds, a favoured food.

When the seed supply is plentiful, the erratic siskins may stay the winter on Vancouver Island, although some flocks do migrate, and sightings can be scarce. These highly gregarious birds form winter flocks of 50 to 1000, and fly in swirling formations similar to waxwings. The flocks break into pairs only to breed.

In mating season, siskin pairs feed each other with tender gentleness, and the male’s colouration brightens considerably … the better to attract a mate, which is the way with almost all avian species.

Spotting a swirl of siskins and hearing their chatter makes any day brighter. Attract pine siskins with a niger (thistle) feeder, where they may join a flock of their finch cousins, the more colourful goldfinches, house finches or purple finches.

E-mail Christine at: wildernesswest@shaw.ca. Vancouver Island Bird Poster available at Museum and Coho Books.