All About Pine Siskins

When pine siskins visit, they come in droves.

As winter approaches, snowflakes aren’t the only things swirling around your feeders. Pine siskins sometimes fly in as they migrate from high mountains of the West and Canada’s conifer forests to America’s Lower 48 looking for food.

Where to See Pine Siskins

These social birds travel in large, noisy flocks that are difficult to miss, though a single pine siskin sometimes appears in flocks of goldfinches, their close relatives. You’ll probably hear their raspy, wheezy twitters before you even see them. But their journey southward isn’t a sure thing. It’s common for birders to see pine siskins in droves one year, then nothing the next. These sporadic and geographically erratic visits are most likely prompted by a cyclical shortage of conifer seeds. (Read more: Ron Pittaway’s Finch Irruption Forecast)

What Pine Siskins Look Like

Similar to a sparrow but in the finch family, siskins have small, slender bodies that are light brown with a streaky, cream-colored breast. Bright yellow and black edge their wing tips and tails. Look for flashes of yellow as they flutter from branch to branch, sometimes hanging upside down, picking seeds from pine cones or descending upon a field of thistle or wild sunflower. Adaptable to survive cold weather and full of aerobatic antics in flight and while feeding, they are special songbirds that many birders hope to see.

Pine siskin on thistle feederphoto credit: Christine Haines
photo credit: Christine Haines When pine siskins aren’t chowing down at thistle feeders, they’re on the ground munching on seeds that messy eaters have dropped.

What Pine Siskins Eat

To get up close and personal with these winter visitors, simply set out their favorite food, and these opportunistic eaters will find you–and fast! Like nearly all finches, a pine siskin’s diet consists mostly of seed, though they also eat insects such as caterpillars and aphids. In the wild, pine, spruce, alder, birch, grass, sunflower and weed seeds are their go-to foods. But in the backyard, fresh Nyjer seed (also called thistle) is a safe bet, as are black-oil sunflower seeds, millet and sunflower chips. Just be sure to have plenty on hand to keep them coming back. Pine siskins also occasionally eat suet, especially insect-based kinds. (Read more: Sunflowers for Birds)

The Best Feeders for Pine Siskins

Because siskins are likely to feed by the dozens, long tube feeders that offer several perches allow for many to feast at once. And it’s best to set out multiple feeders because pine siskins are a feisty and sometimes combative sort when it comes to food. You also may find success by spreading seed on the ground.

Unfortunately, pine siskins are susceptible to salmonella, which is easily transmitted from one bird to another as they travel and eat in tight groups. This happens in the wild, however, as much as it does at backyard feeders. Keep your feeders and the area around them clean to help prevent or slow the spread of the disease.

3 More Things About Pine Siskins

1. Splish, Splash

Pine siskins love to bathe in bunches. Here’s how to keep your bath thawed in winter:

  • Invest in a birdbath heater or de-icer.
  • Put water in a heated dog dish.
  • Add a small fountain to keep the water moving.
  • Pour hot water over icy birdbaths in the morning to loosen ice, then fill with warm water.

2. Mimic Their Habitat

Place feeders near twiggy trees, large conifers and other dense winter vegetation so pine siskins have a place to go for protection against predators and the snow, wind and sleet that often come with the season. Along a tree line or woody area is ideal.

3. Glossary

Irruption: When pine siskins or other birds travel outside of their typical range in search of critical food sources.

Rachael Liska
Rachael Liska is a freelance writer and editor specializing in birding, gardening, food and family.