The cold weather following the cold front last Wednesday night brought with it increased activity at the bird feeders in Catch the Wind. There had been one Pine Siskin hanging around for a couple of weeks and Ranger Kristin reported 6 siskins at the feeders on Sunday (1/27) but it took the cold to bring in a group of 18 of the little finches.
The birds had nearly cleaned out the thistle feeder, it was getting very low on seed, and they began to eat from the ground.
I replenished the thistle and all was well again.
I noticed that the siskin in the above photo was having trouble and seemed to be looking around more often than normal. Birds at a feeder are constantly checking out their surroundings, but this bird seemed more on edge than the others. I found out why when it went to the other side of the feeder.
The siskin could only see out of one eye. My first thought was that the eye was missing, but remembered that these birds are susceptible to the same disease as is suffered by the House Finch, Mycoplasmal conjuctivitis. This disease causes severe swelling of the eyes and eventually death in the infected birds. It can cause similar symtoms as occur in Avian Pox, but that disease also causes bumps and swelling of the feet and legs. I don’t see any of that on our siskin.
The eyes of the siskin in the photo do not, in fact, look swollen as would be the case with either disease. Only one eye is affected, and that one appears to be sunken. Perhaps this bird flew into a tree limb, had an encounter with a predator, or somehow otherwise injured itself.
Saturday (2/2), there were more than two dozen of the trim little finches and many more goldfinches. Pine Siskins have been reported on carolinabirds ListServ this past week from Cary, Raleigh, and Durham. Some feeders around the Triangle have had over 100 siskins.
Many other birds were stocking up on Saturday as well.
The smallest nuthatch in our area, the Brown-headed Nuthatch is a southeastern specialty. Two other nuthatches can be seen here in the southeast, the year-round resident White-breasted Nuthatch and the sometime winter visitor Red-breasted Nuthatch.
If you knew what the little nuthatch in the photo was, you did very well. All of the three nuthatches in our area can have brownish undertail coverts. They’d all be difficult to distiguish from one another with the rear-end view as in the photo. That probably wasn’t a very fair question at all.
Although, if you were really sharp you may have noticed the size difference between this bird and the larger White-breasted Nuthatch above, that is, relative to the suet cage and or wrought iron in the photo, but that’s pushing it too. Sorry. It’s definitely a Brown-headed Nuthatch.
Elsewhere, I saw a small flock of Field Sparrows down in the Wetlands and two Canada Geese flew in for a brief look around the area. I didn’t get a very close look at them, but could those two geese have been Lucy and Goosey?
The seasons they are a changing.
Pine Siskin or House Finch?
The Pine Siskin in comparison to the House Finch is a smaller, more trim bird. They’re closer in size to goldfinches than House Finches. Siskins have a more pointed bill than the House Finch and note the rounded head, not flat-topped like the House Finch.
Siskins have an overall cleaner appearance, more distinct streaks on a whiter background. They have streaked backs as well. And, make note of the clean white wingbars on the siskin. Siskins’ tails are shorter and more notched than House Finches.
You won’t see the yellow on the flight feathers in all siskins (photo), but if there’s a group of finches at your feeder and they all look the same except that some have yellow on their wings, they’re probably all siskins. Their flocking behavior is another characteristic of siskins, they may be here today and gone tomorrow. House Finches may linger in smaller groups once they find a good food source, like your feeder.
House Finches are less likely to try and feed from a thistle feeder, their bills are too broad to fit into the tiny holes of those feeders, so if the birds that you have are eating all of your thistle, they’re probably siskins or goldfinches. Of course, both siskins and goldfinches will eat up all of your sunflower seed too if you don’t have thistle for them.
There should be no trouble distinguishing a male House Finch from any siskin, they have reddish feathers on the head, back, and breast.
Greg Dodge is a professional naturalist as well as a writer, videographer and producer of natural history DVDs. His images have been used in various TV productions, museum displays, and corporate videos. Above all, he has a fascination and passion for all things natural.
He can be found Tuesday thru Saturday in Explore the Wild, Catch the Wind, or on the Dinosaur Trail. Ask him what’s new in the wild!