Door to Nature

Many people are witnessing a “finch winter” in Door County, and throughout much of the state, such as they’ve never experienced before. Thousands of American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins and a smaller number of Common Redpolls are coming to feeders and are also being seen feasting on their preferred wild foods.

Goldfinches are present on the winter scene every year simply because they do not migrate. Both sexes generally look alike now, which leads some people to believe they are not goldfinches. Late February is when some of the males gradually begin to take on their bright yellow breeding plumage.

It’s the diminutive, lispy and chattery, fast-moving Pine Siskins that may be new to some birdwatchers. They were unknown to me until our Kewaunee Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 28, 1958 when we were treated to a flock of a few dozen busily extracting hemlock seeds from the cones. Their tameness and complete confidence in us was truly amazing, one of their traits which became so apparent to me in the following years.

Charlotte and I were living in the Rangelight Residence at the Ridges Sanctuary near Baileys Harbor in February 1974 when I learned how easy it was to capture a siskin by hand as it fed ravenously at one of the feeders. Several of these delicately striped creatures scratched about right beneath my outstretched hand causing me to wonder whether I could make a fast move and catch one. So I tried, and caught one!

I told my wife about the fun I had catching the bird, and she asked, “Why didn’t you show it to me?” So I promptly went out and caught another, brought it indoors and held it so Charlotte could make some sketches of it. It’s especially interesting to note that these birds generally have some yellow in their wings and tails but the amount varies a lot from bird to bird.

Holding one in the hand soon indicates how practically weightless they are, about 43 hundredths of one ounce. For those of you who have been so fortunate to have chickadees feed from your hand, the siskin is about one-twentieth of one ounce heavier, even though a chickadee appears to be slightly larger. The narrow sharp-pointed beak of the siskin especially attracted our attention as we closely studied this beady-eyed undersized miracle of 20 below zero F. weather. More than once in past years we’ve seen the aggressive siskins flail their wings in defiance at the approach of other birds. Quite regularly the “I was here first” bird will fly at the intruding siskin, pecking repeatedly at the top of its back and head with its authoritative beak. Both often fly several feet into the air, while the attacker appears to still be clutching onto the victim’s head feathers.

Wide sweeping, circular reconnaissance flights of the roughly 120 siskins frequenting our feeders now occur daily over our woods, perhaps accomplishing one of several things. They may be looking for the offerings of the trees such as cones of the Eastern Hemlocks or White Spruces, or seed catkins on the Paper Birches. The siskins may also be on the lookout for their natural enemies, namely the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk and the Northern Shrike.

My guess is that the sudden but short flights also may serve to warm their tiny bodies. Studies have shown that small birds such as the siskins and goldfinches must shiver nearly continuously on very cold days to stay warm. Obviously you know how your blood circulation warms your body as you exercise. Undoubtedly the same phenomenon occurs for birds when they fly.

What short jerky steps the siskins take as they feed upon the ground or on the platform feeder. One can easily tell by watching them that they are not really at ease unless feeding in the trees, where their nimble movements display to all who see them that this is their specialty, this is their calling.

Wisconsin has many active birdwatchers who regularly report their observations and who experience wide fluctuations of wintering siskins from year to year. A small number nest in the northern-most counties of the state. It very likely was the advent of the backyard thistle-feeders that has brought about many more good sightings and reports of these birds. Our Northern Door County winter bird counts began in 1964 and it wasn’t until 1971 that finally two siskins were seen. Their appearance did not occur regularly until 1974, when 128 were counted. Their growth continued uninterrupted through our biggest year, 1980, when 1,388 Pine Siskins were seen in late December.

Not at all to my surprise are the mixed feelings some people have about these sprightly seed-consuming visitors from the North. Be glad that their erratic movements don’t bring them here every winter in large numbers and that you don’t live year around where they nest. Some gardeners, for example, living in British Columbia find it impossible to grow vegetables except under protective netting. Siskins relish young tender garden crops too!

Come summer when they’re back in their northern nesting environment, their food will consist of the seeds of evergreen trees, birches, alders, ragweed, thistles, Spotted Knapweed, Chickweed and others. Part of their diet will include spiders, fly larvae, aphids, caterpillars, plant lice, saw-fly galls and grasshoppers.

Hopefully their November flight later this year will bring some of them back to Door County where they will help to bring us closer to nature in many ways.