I had to look them up to be sure, but yes, these smallish, streaky-brown birds with flashes of bright yellow on tail and wing feathers that were flocking into my garden were Pine Siskins. I had not had them at my feeder for quite a while. They are lively!  While confirming their identity, I learned that they are a type of finch, albeit smaller with a finer pointed beak. They adore thistle seed or small seeds like millet and acrobatically hung off my clumps of untrimmed flower stalks gleaning seeds, saved for just such a purpose. They appeared voracious.

A little hard to see among the tangles but several are feeding greedily on seeds or perhaps small insects

Siskins are noted for their flocking behavior and for mobbing feeders. Some writers called them gregarious, while others shaded more to “aggressive” or “domineering.” Other feeder birds might agree. When Siskins move in, your chickadees and nuthatches are sidelined. But it seemed only momentary at my house. Siskins breezed in, partied, and left for new places; maybe I didn’t have their preferred foods. They can’t handle sunflower seeds still in the shell and are peckish about suet, my main offerings. I tried to capture them in photos but they swished around too rapidly to have more than blurry images.

They began, though, to show up on neighborhood postings and in anxious emails and message boards. All that close flocking and eating and general congregating—just like we humans used to do in pre-Covid times and now should not—can lead to tragedy. First there was excitement and wonder at the arrival of this northern bird from the conifer forests and mixed boreal woodlands of Canada, identified as an irruption from their normal migration pattern due to food shortages in their winter range. But it soon turned to dismay when more and more sick and dying birds were discovered at feeders and in gardens. The close flocking and feeding behavior that draws our attention facilitates the spread of salmonella bacteria that can contaminate feeders, birdbaths, and water dishes and be passed bird to bird. (Humans and pets can be impacted too. Wear gloves, wash your hands thoroughly and clean areas frequented by birds.)

Sick birds are said to be lethargic and appear tame—or at least indifferent to human approach. They have fluffed up feathers, perhaps swollen eyes and an unnatural stillness. Besides being careful about your own exposure, seeing birds in this condition signals that you need to take down your own feeders and dishes and clean everything with a mix of hot soapy water rinsed with bleach water. See here for  exact instructions:   And then retire your feeders for a week or more. Some advice recommends not putting out feeders again until sometime next month to be sure the Siskins have moved on and the danger has abated.

Normally, my seed feeder and suet feeder hand off this contraption tied to a pulley but now it just dangles, empty

It was a melancholy sight to see a line of Bushtits clinging to the dangling empty string from my feeder. Where were the goods? It’s been very quiet for days now. I rejoiced to see a few juncos scrambling around under the ferns and in drifts of old leaves the other day. And the hummingbirds are as territorial as ever; their feeder is entirely their own and not endangered. How I miss “my” birds! But I have to remember it’s not about me, but their health and lives. And take the long view.

A lone junco in a rain-drenched garden

To learn more about Pine Siskins in general and about the meaning of irruptions, see here:

And here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more species information and a great map showing Siskin territory and what is impacting their normal range of habitation:

6 thoughts on “Winter-in-Waiting

  1. I’ve been thinking about that book I read….the one that asks Should we be feeding wild birds? A big part of the answer was that we do it for ourselves (except in instances of severe weather events). I acknowledge that is largely true for myself and so with that comes a big responsibility, as you say too. It’s not “wrong” to feed birds but it is a package deal.


  2. Well we had to bring in our feeders today. I found a dead pine siskin under the feeder. Your article about Salmonella was timely Anne. I had not noticed any lethargic birds but our feeders are further away in the garden. Funny, the other day we found a dead pine siskin by our sliding glass doors downstairs and just assumed it had flown into the window. Unusual spot as that window doesn’t get any direct sun shining on it to confuse the birds but I never thought past that. Now I wonder if it was unwell as well. Too bad. We’ve emptied out the bird bath and I will bleach that tomorrow. Do you think we need to worry about the hummingbird feeders too? In my yard, it is not anywhere even close to the garden seed feeders and we know hummers won’t go to seed feeding spots so maybe not??…


  3. Hmmm. I am assuming that hummingbird feeders are quite a different thing, not shared with other birds. And if you keep them fresh and clean, that would do it. Right?

    I’m struggling with the question of when to bring back my feeders. One website said retiring them for a week would be sufficient. Others seems to be indicating more time might be safer. I’m kicking myself for not marking my calendar just when I removed the feeders…and still being in a bit of Covid-mental fog…..I don’t remember. So I’m going to give myself a wide margin. I have found no dead birds in my garden but properties are small in my neighborhood so sick birds could easily be succumbing next door where I can’t see them. (Even though we are all friends here I don’t imagine my neighbors would like to see me prowling their back yards for dead birds!) One website recommended restoring feeders in February so that seems like the margin I am seeking. I hope that works. I haven’t seen a Siskin for at least a week. Not sure if that is good or tragic.


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