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And the birds still sing

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By Sylvia Brockner

As most of the readers of this column know, my dear husband, Bill, passed away on Nov. 19. Since that time the Canyon Courier has been most helpful to me in many ways, including reprinting past columns for several weeks. I am most grateful for their many kindnesses and continuing support.

Now, I must go on with my life without my dearest companion, and that includes resuming this column. I also most sincerely thank every reader who has sent me condolences.

December has been exceptionally cold, with many nights hovering at zero or below and days barely reaching above freezing. With such frigid temperatures and a snow cover over most of the ground, birds have been flocking to the feeders. Bill had asked me to fill out a feeder report on Thanksgiving Day for a Western stats count that he had taken part in for many years. I was able to report only six or seven pine siskens on Thanksgiving Day. However, two weeks later we had more than 200 siskins at the feeders. Today, as I write, I would estimate somewhere around 100 are on the feeders or singing in the nearby trees.

These changing figures are largely due to the flux in siskin population brought about by the cone crop. Siskins are now appearing in large nomadic winter flocks throughout the area. During years when the cone crop is poor in the Canadian forests, the birds move southward in search of food, and this year the very heavy crop of cones on the Douglas fir and blue spruce trees has brought them into our area. This very heavy set of cones is a normal occurrence following a dry, windy spring when the trees are in pollen.

With such an abundant food supply, it’s to be expected that an influx of birds will follow. We already have more dark-eyed juncos than last year, and pine siskins and red crossbills seem to be increasing over the area. The Christmas Bird Count was held Dec. 21, and it will be interesting to see how the numbers of these northern finches compare with previous years.

Pine siskins are one of our smaller birds. They are also usually quite fearless, coming to feeders regularly. They often will come quite close to people if you sit or stand quietly near a feeder. Basically brown and white with darker brown streaks, they also have two conspicuous wing bars. The upper bar is usually white or pale yellow, the lower bar bright yellow. This wing bar and the yellow rump patch are very noticeable in flight. The yellow coloring may vary from very pale creamy yellow to a bright lemon. Usually the males are more brilliant yellow, while the females are nearly white. Young juvenile birds are also much more yellow about the head and breast, but this is molted during their first fall molt.

Siskins nest as far north as southeastern Alaska and all across the coniferous forests of Canada. They winter as far south as Mexico and are quite literally found almost everywhere.

The pine siskin’s song is a jumble of twittering, warbling notes that are reminiscent of the American goldfinch. It is largely an imitation of the notes of other species of finches. They also have a high-pitched flight call that sounds remarkably like the wing-sound of a broad-tailed hummingbird. An unusually early report of a broad-tailed hummingbird that is “heard but not seen” is more than likely to be a pine siskin.

Their noisy warbling song is an important part of the dawn chorus during years when they are present in large numbers. Pine siskins flock during most of the year and are sometimes found in flocks of gold finches. They are easily separated by their heavy streaking, and the pine siskins have a fine, sharply pointed bill not at all like the heavy thick beak of the goldfinch.

In spring they move out of the flocks and are found in pairs nesting high in tall spruce or fir trees. Males are ardent mates and can sometimes be seen singing rapturously as they fly around and around the tip of a tree where the female is perched.