Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pine Siskins - Vanguard of Winter Finches

Goldfinches in camouflage - that’s how one field guide describes the little brown jobs (LBJs) which have been visiting my feeders in large numbers the last few weeks. The Pine Siskin is almost identical in size and shape to the familiar American Goldfinch. The two species often flock together. From a few yards away, it is very easy to miss the Pine Siskin among the olive drab winter plumage of the goldfinch. A casual glance at the dark wings and wing bars make you think that there is only one species, not two. But then you notice that some of the birds in the flock are buffy and unstreaked on breast and back, and others are very streaked, and you realize that there are two different birds which are consuming your sunflower seeds in such quantity.

Or you may see sparrows and female finches busy on the ground around the feeders; these are the birds that define “little brown job” and are so confusing to many observers. But one of them is hoping on the ground in a way that suggests it is not comfortable scratching among the leaves. Or you notice that it is slimmer than the usually robust looking sparrows. It does not have any prominent head markings, and its beak is sharply pointed. When you finally get your binoculars on this LBJ you might notice that there is yellow along the edge of the wings and tail. You are looking at a Pine Siskin.

Pine Siskins are odd little birds. Forbush summarizes their behavior: “The Northern Pine Siskin is almost as erratic as the crossbills. During every month in the year small flocks wander about as if there were no such thing as a breeding season, and individuals may be seen occasionally in summer far south of their usual breeding-grounds. They may breed one year in a certain region and far away the next, and in migration or in winter they may visit a locality in great numbers in one year and pass it by the next.”

This year they are at my feeders in great numbers, often outnumbering the goldfinches. In my backyard, this is a banner year for the siskins. I have been doing an informal poll of other bird watchers to find out if they are also having large numbers of siskins. At best, they have answered, “A few.” More likely they tell me that one visited once, or a couple occasionally. So far in my polling, Pine Siskins are not being reported in unusual numbers, except in my backyard.

Looking back through my notes, I have managed to see the Pine Siskin every year, but in many of those years, the numbers have been very few. On the other hand, they occasionally hang in large numbers where I happen to be. There is no apparent predictability.

I remember one Spring listening to the finches singing in the trees around my home - jumbled, varied, twittering notes celebrated the melting snow and warming temperatures. Occasionally I scanned the trees and picked out a male American Goldfinch in his fresh yellow plumage. But more often I noticed that the twittering song was interrupted suddenly with a rising “zzshrreeeee,” - then the twittering resumed. Most of those singing finches that early Spring were siskins. Every Spring since, I have listened for the cheerful song that is suddenly interrupted, but have heard it only occasionally.

The American Goldfinch and the Pine Siskin are closely related. Both are classified in the Genus Carduelis, from the Latin for “thistle.” Thistle is presumed to be the favorite food of these birds, and both species have been filling the perches on the thistle feeder in my backyard. The siskins that cannot find a perch contentedly scarf the sunflower seeds in large quantity.

The thistle blooms late in the late summer, and this is sometimes used to explain why the goldfinch is one of the latest nesting bird. Generally, they do not begin to get serious about their breeding responsibilities until late June or early July. I remember years ago finding an occupied goldfinch nest in an apple tree in late September. Presumably the goldfinches postpone their nesting until their favorite food becomes available.

But life in nature is never quite that neat and simple. The Pine Siskin, also a “thistle bird,” begins its breeding season in late March or early April. For such a small bird, it builds a relatively large nest, lined with hair, fur, feathers, and other fine materials. It may be that this fine lining serves as insulation against the harsh weather still common in the northern latitude pine forests where the Pine Siskin nests. One study suggests that they feed their young mainly on aphids, and another study has shown that various insects figure prominently in their diet. This is only what would be expected, especially during the rearing of young with their heavy protein requirements. In nesting early, the siskins are relying on the insects which also emerge early in the year.

Pine Siskins wander widely in the pine forests of the north, and as a consequence, there is much about these birds that is still uncertain. Bent, in his 1968 Life History, is uncertain whether they double-brood. Thirty years later, Baicich and Harrison still can only say, “Possibly double-brooded.” Siskins follow their own time-table. I am quite sure that they understand when and where they breed, but science is still trying to puzzle it out.

This year I saw my first Pine Siskins on a mountain top in mid June. I don’t know where they were in their breeding cycle - at the end, or just beginning, or starting over again. That they were breeding on the mountain top, I am sure. They prefer the northern pine forest, and that habitat stretches south along our mountain tops.

Once breeding is concluded, the siskins move southward in a pattern that is completely unpredictable. In our neighborhood, southward may mean nothing more than moving from higher elevations to lower elevations. When the first siskins started showing up in my backyard in early August, they were probably the mountain top birds coming down to the valleys.

What about the siskins covering the thistle feeder perches now? When I reported this to another birder, his response was, “This could be a good finch year.” Every so often, the northern finches irrupt southward. Poor seed crops in northern Ontario have led some field ornithologists to predict that this will be an irruptive year. So my siskins may be the vanguard of the winder finches.

The Common Redpoll (also Genus Carduelis) is fairly predictable; it usually appears in the northeast every other year. The Pine Grosbeak is less predictable. It has not been reported on a Christmas Count for several years. Many feel it is due. And the crossbills - they are about as erratic as any of these finch family birds. A report of large numbers of siskins at backyard feeders is grasped by some as a harbinger of winter finch sightings to come. I know one birder who is already twitching at the possibility.

The Pine Siskins in my backyard may be a vanguard - or just an anomaly. We’ll see. Sometimes, good birding is defined by hope and anticipation. But I hope that winter birding this year will be defined by many winter finches. I hope that is what the Pine Siskins in my yard are anticipating. I hope.

Good birding.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins have irrupted in my backyard. For a couple of weeks, an estimated 20-30 siskins have been regular at the feeders, often outnumbering the goldfinches with which they seem to be flocking. I've only seen a scattering of reports about siskins elsewhere, but maybe (I hope) this is the first sign of a winter finches this year.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

I couldn't find photos which suited this week's column, but decided to put up a couple anyway. Swamp Sparrow behaving like a wren - and a visitor to my new window feeder. Please don't miss the unillustrated column below.

Some Curiosities in Bird Names

Bird names are often curious. The rules of nomenclature say that once a bird has been named, it keeps that name, even if the name has no bearing on what is subsequently learned about the bird. That explains why, for example, the robin has never been renamed the reb-breasted thrush but remains the (American) robin, because it bears a similarity to the (Eurasian) robin which has a red breast. Or why the American Redstart does not have warbler in its name in some fashion, because it bears a superficial resemblance to European redstarts, all of which are in the thrush family.

A curious aspect about bird names is that many of the common birds which we know in the East are descriptive names, while many of the birds found in the West belong to someone; they are so and so’s bird.

Consider our eastern warblers. In the East we find the yellow, chestnut-sided, black and white, black-throated green, black-throated blue, blue-winged, cerulean, bay-breasted, and others. If not descriptive of the bird, the name may suggest their diet or where they are found: myrtle (now yellow-rumped), worm-eating, magnolia, and pine. By contrast, among the western warblers we find Virginia’s, Lucy’s, Townsend’s, Grace’s, MacGillivray’s, and Audubon’s (now lumped with the myrtle as the yellow-rumped).

The names of our eastern sparrow, all nondescript little brown birds, are descriptive. Chipping Sparrows chip, Song Sparrows sing, Field Sparrows are found in fields, Swamp Sparrows in swamps, White-throated Sparrows have white throats, and White-crowned Sparrows have white crowns. Go out West and you will find sparrows that also have descriptive names (sage, or rufous-crowned), but you will also find sparrows that “belong” to Botteri, Cassin, Brewer, Baird, Harris and Le Conte.

Not a single one of our local woodpeckers has a proper name in its name (downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated, flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker), but in the West you will find Lewis’s and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers and Williamson’s Sapsucker.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only regularly occurring hummingbird in the East; other species occasionally show up, especially in the Fall, but they are usually juveniles and are notoriously difficult to identify as a different species, even for many very experienced birders. In the West you can find many species of hummingbirds and most have names descriptive of their plumage. But among those western hummingbirds there is also Anna’s, Costa’s, and Allen’s.

In the East, many common birds have a slue of folk names, a situation which often caused confusion until the American Ornithological Union began imposing some order. I pick just a few by way of example. The Northern Flicker has been known as High-hole; Wake-up; Harrywicket, and Yellow Hammer. The Chipping Sparrow has been called Chip-bird and Hair-bird and is still referred to as Chippy. The Common Yellowthroat is still, and will continue to be, called the “Wichety-wichety,” and no amount of officialdom is likely to change that.

So why does the West have so many birds named for forgotten people? It goes back to the history of Europeans in North America. The Spanish came to the Western Hemisphere for gold; the French came for furs. The English came to stay. It was the early 1800s before curious naturalists began describing the flora and fauna of North America in any serious or systematic way. Alexander Wilson, considered the father of American ornithology, and John James Audubon, were self-taught artists and naturalists, often pursuing their interests in neglect of making a living. By the time they began their work, people of European descent, mostly English, had been living in the eastern states for two hundred years. They were clearing the forests, struggling with the native peoples they were displacing, contending with a far-away monarch, and creating a new form of government. In the course of making a living, they noticed the potato bird which ate the bugs in their garden (Rose-breasted Grosbeak). They scattered the rice-birds eating their rice with bird-shot (Bobolinks). They enjoyed partridge (Ruffed Grouse) and gobbler (Wild Turkey) on the dinner plate. And they listened to Stake-driver, Thunder-pumper, and Dunk-a-doo in the marshes (American Bittern). When the naturalists went to work describing the birds of the East, many of those birds were already very familiar. The naturalists provided some system and order.

At the beginning of the 1800s, President Jefferson pulled off the greatest land purchase in history, but had no idea what he had bought. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was the first of many organized excursions by the English-speaking Americans to discover what lay westward. These expeditions were all sent out with instructions to record the plants, animals, birds, geography, and people to be found in these new lands. Accompanying the expeditions were naturalists (albeit often self-trained naturalists) charged with fulfilling these instructions. Hundreds of new species were recorded and collected, and eventually found their way back to the East. This continued as the frontier pushed its way to the Pacific coast and exploratory expeditions gave way to permanent settlers. Western species were new to everyone. With no folk names, the naturalists were free to do the naming.

Modern science was still in its developmental stage in the early nineteenth century, but already it was well-established that the person who discovered a new species - that is, described a new species for science - had the right to name it, and the name would continue thereafter. It was not appropriate to name a species after oneself, but you could honor someone by giving that person’s name to a species you discovered. Audubon, for example, named a rare eastern warbler (non extinct) and sparrow after his South Carolina friend, Dr. John Bachman. Other Audubon friends and companions were honored in Harris’ Sparrow and Harlan’s Hawk (now a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk). It fell to others to honor the pioneers of American ornithology. Alexander Wilson fared quite well; his name is attached to a warbler, plover, snipe, and storm-petrel, and also to a genus of warbler. Audubon did not fare quite so well. An Atlantic shearwater is named for Audubon, and the western warbler which is now a sub-species of the Yellow-rumped Warbler. The western species called so and so’s, were discovered and described by various naturalists and named by them, often honoring someone.

Eastern species which are named for a person are typically unusual or rare species; they were not well known to the general population and therefore could be discovered and named (Kirkland’s Warbler, for example). In the East, birds bearing a place name, like Cape May, Tennessee, Connecticut or Nashville Warblers recall the place where they were first “discovered,” not where they live. The four warblers just named winter in the tropics and breed near or north of the Canadian border. They merely pass through their place names during migration. On the other hand, western birds named for a place are likely to be residents of the place, like California Thrasher, California Quail, and Arizona Woodpecker (previously known as Strickland’s Woodpecker).

I haven’t begun to exhaust this topic of bird names, but I have run out of space for this week. Good birding!


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