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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The American goldfinch and the Pine Siskin... America's jewels

No, there are not wild canaries in our area. In fact, there are no wild canaries in North America. That is not to say a person might not stumble upon an escaped canary, fluttering about, wondering “what in the world do I do now?!” Those little yellow birds you see in our haunts that look like canaries are probably either an American Goldfinch or a Pine Siskin. Let’s look at each of these two feathered jewels separately.

First, the American Goldfinch. Classify this one as drop-dead gorgeous. This bird, especially the male, is hard to mistake for anything else: bright, bright yellow plumage, a jaunty black beanie that is pushed to the front of the head, a white rump (the base of the body on the topside above the tail feathers), and matching black tail and wings, both with white racing stripes. And that pinkish-yellow, near-perfect conical beak is a real seed crusher and is especially helpful for identifying the bird during the off-season. Careful: the beak will be quite a bit darker in the non-breeding phase.   

Like the waxwings, the American Goldfinch adjusts its breeding to coincide with its favorite plant food: thistles. They tend to nest a bit after other birds, perhaps not until the middle of summer. When you see one you are bound to see others, as they tend to congregate in small, loose flocks. During the early part of the breeding season you’ll see the males chasing each other around as they seek to establish their territories. It’s kind of fun watching them act so tough with each other.

You can lure goldfinches to your yard by putting sunflower and thistle seeds in your feeder. They don’t mind sharing and typically get along with other species. They’ll even tolerate each other once the eggs are laid and being brooded. Also, think twice before clearing out the thistles from your back forty. Do you really need to? Wouldn’t it be better to provide some natural forage for our fine-feathered friends? A thought, anyway.

Goldfinches in in our whereabouts may or may not stay year around. Depends on the mood. Some hard winters might drive a few south, whereas other winters they’ll all hang around. Everything is centered around food supply. Just like college kids. During the winter, the male is far less gaudy than in the summer and more similar to the female in coloration. Both birds at this time are still quite attractive and distinctive. Though they are a bit more drab in appearance, the patterns on the wing really set them apart. And they still sport a lot of sunshine.

And this brings us to our other finch: the Pine Siskin. Siskins can also be quite yellow, but the degree of coloration differs from individual to individual. What really defines the siskin’s plumage is the streaking. These birds are peppered with short, little brown paisley smudges, up and down the body. Generally, the yellow will be found on the wing bars and the tail. Sometimes especially bright males will have yellow around the head or flanks, but the yellow wing bars are the field mark ne plus ultra. Females are similar to the males, but may completely lack yellow. If you see a pair, the male will the be the yellower of the two.

The Pine Siskin is one of my favorites, though it is not a regular visitor to my feeders. I will see them frequently for a short time and then they’re gone—sometimes for weeks. Maybe they have already picked out the choice pieces that they can reach with their little, pointed beaks, and are waiting for the house finches to come and stir things up again. We all have our needs.

Pine Siskins are faithful year-round residents, but an empty gizzard will cause them to move on en masse in search of food. This mass movement by large flocks—generally in winter—is called irruption, and siskins seems to be more prone to the phenomenon than other species. Have hunger, will travel.

Goldfinches and Pine Siskins are fun birds to have around. They are pretty, active, and easy to identify. Take a pair of binoculars and head to some scrubby, weedy areas near any stand of trees and you are bound to get lucky. But just remember: just because they are common doesn’t mean that they aren’t special. Just like you and me. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, goldfinch

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