Garden feeders encourage conifer-loving siskins
Another Life: A relative of the goldfinch, the siskin is ‘the most joyous of birds’
Siskins at alder cones – small, mean and muscular, repelling any other bird daring to come near.
The few days of late Arctic chill seemed to warrant a last tube of nuts for the birds. I was rewarded with bright flashes of lemon beyond my workroom window as a covey of siskins took possession. They were small, mean and muscular, repelling any other bird daring to come near.
Siskins have followed their even more vividly colourful relatives, the goldfinches, to garden takeaways, having much the same pointed tweezers for a bill.
“Black-headed thistlefinch” is a common name, somewhere, for the goldfinch (it’s a good one to mutter) and the bird is certainly best at extracting the thistle’s seeds. The siskin, on the other hand, spends a lot of time up to its eyebrows in the cones of forest conifers, or the small and elegant cones that alder trees conjure from female catkins.
Tubes of Argentinian peanuts or oil-rich Nyjer seeds offer nutritious pickings when these seasonal natural resources run out or fail. Siskins first found Ireland’s garden feeders in the 1970s and their place in BirdWatch Ireland’s annual garden bird survey has varied widely since then: a good seed harvest in conifer forests can push them well down the numbers of garden records. Goldfinches, on the other hand, have increased steadily, from just six gardens (of 1,000) in 1994-1995 to a remarkable 588 in 2014-2015.
The general increase in garden siskins, especially from February to early spring, has helped to mask the decline of greenfinches, whose plumage shares much the same greens. They were hard hit by trichomonosis, a parasitic disease spread in saliva when feeding their chicks. In 2006 it was blamed for the deaths of some half a million breeding greenfinches in the UK and it spread with winter migrants to Ireland. While still making the top 20 of Ireland’s common garden birds, the greenfinch is now scarce in many areas.
The siskins’ rise as a breeding bird in both islands has been linked to the spread of conifer forestry, but garden feeders provide the supplementary food to boost survival rates. “Forty years ago,” says the British Trust for Ornithology, “they were confined to the highlands of Scotland and Wales.”
In Ireland, according to John Watters in 1853, it was “only an occasional winter visitor to our island, and, most uncertain in its periodic visits, it occurs either in large flocks, or as often individually”. But a few years later, Charles Moffat, a nature-mad reporter with the Daily Express in Dublin, found them breeding regularly in Wexford. By 1900 they were widespread in Wicklow woods and, in Ulster, already being kidnapped from their nests as singing cage-birds.
In their Scottish heartland, siskins nest happily right at the top of the old native pine trees. In Ireland, they found Scots pines and silver firs in “big house” demesnes. The wholesale felling of estate trees at the turn of the century dispossessed a good many of the birds.
By the 1950s, the earliest conifer plantations were tall enough to offer the siskins their lofty attic homes, but Scots pine remained the first choice. Even in this century, studies of biodiversity in mature, close-planted plantations dominated by Sitka spruce rarely make mention of siskins, though they must be nesting somewhere. Many of those seen in Ireland in winter are migrants from Scandinavia or beyond.
The commonest birds of Irish conifers are those of surrounding farmland, but in forests of the southwest the tiny, head-striped goldcrests make up half the breeding birds at probably the highest density in Europe.
Goldcrests stay mostly invisible – a distant twitter in the treetops. But, for siskins, I should like to share the experience so lovingly described by Richard Ussher in his 1900 Birds of Ireland: “In the breeding time the siskin is the most joyous of birds, seeming to bound through the air with a cry of delight, and to proclaim its feelings with every note and movement.
“The song is not loud, but it is exceedingly sweet, voluble and varied. The bird usually utters it in April, May or June, on the topmost spray of some tall tree, but he frequently takes a circuit on the wing, pouring out his strain with passionate delight. He will repeat his song several times before alighting, always changing his direction of flight when he recommences to sing.
“Mr Moffat has observed that after alighting, the bird will sometimes continue the song while floundering about among the branches, coming gradually lower till at last he drops in a sort of ecstasy to the lowest branch, and the song terminates with a long-drawn, creaking note. . . “
They don’t do any of that while squabbling at garden nuts. But we do have a few shelter belt Sitkas on the acre, and good, mature alders with catkins and cones. The siskins were probably just visiting from the forestry over the hill, but we live in hope that “the most joyous of birds” will come to stay.