For the Birds: The Irruption of 20-21

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Small, trusting, hungry little bundles of fluff - keep your feeders full for them
Photo by Craig Kerns

By Christine Southwick

Have you had flocks of small birds noisily sitting in your trees, swarming on your bird feeders, and seeming to erupt all over your yard? You really are a lucky one.

Beginning in October this area has seen vast numbers of Pine Siskins, the like not seen for over a decade. Certainly, this is one of the biggest irruptions of these finches ever recorded throughout the United States, even into Georgia and Alabama.

Hungry Pine Siskins have fled Canada in search of food
Photo by Craig Kerns

Bird feeders throughout our country are being emptied by hungry, stressed Pine Siskins who have left their Canadian boreal forest ranges, looking for food due to a meager cone crop there.

An occurrence of a sparse number of cones has always been somewhat cyclic, but now in addition many of the Canadian old-growth forests are being timbered, reducing even more the trees capable of supplying the normally abundant supply of cone seeds.

Water needs to be kept liquid during cold temperatures
Photo by Craig Kerns

Why is this called irruptive behavior and not migration? This type of flock movement is not a regular, annual movement along established flight routes, but an irregular movement, often years apart, and more often east-westward versus predominantly north and south.
These little brown striped birds with yellow feathers on their wings have sharp narrow bills which are suited for eating cone seeds, and they love sunflower chips in backyard feeders. They also like nyjer (thistle) seeds, but in our wet winters I don’t put nyjer seeds in my feeders due to rapid spoilage.

Salmonella seems to affect Pine Siskins more than other birds -- but does it really? 
These finches congregate in number, so a tired and starving Pine Siskin may die and its tiny body found below or near a feeder. 
Keep your feeders, suet, and bird baths clean, but don’t take everything down. Wintering birds still need healthy food.

Pine Siskins don’t see many people in their boreal forest habitats, so they are not afraid of individuals, and if you move slowly you will probably be able to get very close to these birds. 

I have even been able to get individuals to climb onto my finger.

Small, trusting, hungry little bundles of fluff — what’s not to love?

Yes, right now those 20-50 finches are eating all the food in your feeders, trying to get nourishment, but after this coming spring, you might not see Pine Siskins again for several years. 

Enjoy them while they are here.


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