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Iowa Winter Birds: Pine Siskin

When I started working for the Dickinson County Conservation Board five years ago, I didn’t know much about identifying birds.

I could pick out a cardinal, a robin, a goldfinch and a bald eagle. I remember when I was watching the birds in the avian courtyard with a volunteer, and he pointed out a streaky brown bird that I would have figured was a sparrow and called it a pine siskin. He showed me how this American goldfinch relative in disguise can be identified by its streaked appearance and the yellow in its wings. That was one of the first overwintering birds that I learned to identify.

Photo of a pine siskin

Pine siskins are a common winter bird in Iowa and throughout the United States. They breed in northern Canada, into Alaska, and are found throughout Canada and parts of the western United States year-round.

Telling them apart

Pine siskins can be told apart from most finches because of their long, sharply pointed bill that is more slender than others in its genus. They also have a short, notched tail. It is the only carduelid that is entirely brown and streaked with a yellow flash in the wings.

A hoarse goldfinch

Several sources explain the call of the pine siskin as a hoarse or husky goldfinch.

American goldfinch

Pine siskin

Don’t they get cold?

Iowa can reach drastically cold temperatures, so it seems odd to us that birds actually fly here as their overwintering spots. However, these birds are built to withstand even colder temperatures. Pine siskins can increase their metabolic rate to up to 40 percent more than a typical songbird to survive temperatures as low as -94 degrees Fahrenheit. They put on half as much winter fat as common redpolls and American goldfinches, however, they can store food in a part of their esophagus called the crop which gives them extra energy in the cold.

Not only pine-lovers

With a name like pine siskin, you might think you only see these songbirds in evergreens. They do love conifer seeds, but they also feed on deciduous seeds, tree buds, young garden vegetables and grass seeds. They will even each insects and spiders.

At your backyard feeders, pine siskins usually prefer small seeds like thistle and sunflower.

Photo of a pine siskin

In decline

Although pine siskins are fairly common, researchers estimate that populations have declined 80 percent since 1970 and are considered a common bird in steep decline. They are vulnerable to predators, and flocks of pine siskins are vulnerable to outbreaks of salmonella from bird feeders.

Learn more about Iowa winter birds in this series:
Purple finch
American tree sparrow
Dark-eyed junco

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