Bird of the Week: Pine Siskin

Last week my friend Brian called. He had found a grounded bird outside and wasn’t sure if it was stunned or injured. He asked me what he should do—I always worry about grounded birds because of domestic or feral cats that can be lurking in the shadows.  I told him to watch the bird for awhile and if it didn’t fly away, to put it in a small box or basket with a small perch and give it a few drops of water. I asked what kind of bird it was, but when he went back to check, the bird had left.  I am guessing that the bird flew into something and was  only stunned a bit. Brian looked the bird up in his bird book and said it was a Pine Siskin.

A delightful, sweet bird, the Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) is a North American bird in the finch family. All of the Carpodacus finches are considerably larger with thicker bills and lack the yellow flash in the wing characteristic of siskins. Pine Siskins are tiny songbirds with sharp, pointed bills and short, notched tails. They are closely related to the Redpoll and the Goldfinches.

These little birds are opportunistic and adaptable, foraging in weedy fields, scrubby thickets, or backyards and gardens. They appear in flocks and have a distinctive call like a piece of paper slowly being teared into pieces; bird books described it as a buzzy, rising zreeeeee.

As their name suggests, Pine Siskins have an appetite for the seeds of pines, cedars, larch, hemlock, and spruce. They will eat the young buds of willows, elms, and maples. They’ll glean the seeds of grasses, dandelions, chickweed, sunflowers, and ragweed and forage for insects. They also like mineral deposits, including ashes, road salt, and fresh cement. Pine Siskins are a frequent visitor at my feeder in the winter here in the SF Bay area and I see them occasionally eat suet, too. They also have been seen drinking from sapwells drilled by sapsuckers, something I’d really like to see.

Males Pine Siskins sing from high perches and during circular courtship flights. The female begins building a nest in the shape of a shallow saucer with twigs, grasses, weed stems, rootlets, bark strips, and lichens, 2.5–6 inches across. She insulates the inner cup with fur, feathers, grass, moss, or thistle down, up to 2 inches deep. Sometimes the male may contribute nest material as well. Nests can be vulnerable to gusty winds because they are loosely attached to branches. The female remains on the nest continuously, fed by the male.  They will have 1 to 2 broods a season laying 3 to 5 eggs that are pale greenish-blue with brown or reddish-brown spots. Incubation period is about 13 days.

Pine Siskins numbers can be difficult to estimate due to the large and hard-to-predict movements they make each year. The 2014 State of the Birds Report listed them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, and they rate a 10 out of 20 on the Partners in Flight Continental Concern Score. Domestic cats, red squirrels, hawks, jays, and crows can prey on adult birds and on their eggs or young. They are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of salmonella transmitted at feeders.  Loss of habitat from forest-clearing may be balanced by new commercially planted coniferous forests, and by the Pine Siskin’s willingness to nest in shrubs and ornamental trees. Parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds can have a significant impact on Pine Siskin productivity, and forest fragmentation has increased their contact with cowbirds. Maintaining large tracts of coniferous forest is important to keep this bird a common visitor.

Bird of the Week: Raven

I wake up early in the morning to the sounds of croaking and knocking calls of a pair of ravens sitting on the railing of our deck.  These ravens has become our alarm clock. My partner jumps out of bed, grabs some food for them,  runs out and places it on the railing a few feet from the raven. I think these birds have bonded with my partner. Not something I really approve of— for me wild birds should be wild and shouldn’t trust humans.

Though I must say, there is no human on earth that loves birds or any four legged animal for that matter more than my partner. I have seen him stop the car on a road numerous time to retrieve a salamander or even a snake from the busy road and safely put it in the grass or rocks where no automobile can squash it. We all applaud him for this act of bravery… he is our hero in this respect.

But letting a wild animal bond with you is not a good idea. People are just not dependable when it comes to wildlife. We go on vacations and then what does the poor bird do? My partner says feeding the raven is no different than feeding the other birds at the bird feeder. They too look forward to my morning ritual of filling the feeder with birdseed. I disagree. I have no single bird or pair sitting at my bedroom window calling me to feed them. I fill my feeder in the morning and than let the birds fend for themselves the rest of the day. It is useless for me to keep on squabbling about this, my partner has his blinders on, not budging with this issue. I am reminded by it now by the small ink drawing I did of this proud bird. I posted it above to share will you.

The Common Raven, Corvus corax, is part of the corvid family along with crows, magpies and jays. Common Ravens are omnivorous, highly opportunistic and extremely intelligent birds. Actually they are among the smartest of all birds which makes them dangerous predators. Considered scavengers, they usually work in pairs, with one bird distracting a nesting bird while the other waits to grab an egg or chick as soon as it’s uncovered.  They not only develop relationships with people but also with other animals. They have been detected calling wolves to the site of dead animals. The wolves can tear open the carcass to eat but there is always scraps left over, more accessible now to the birds.

Ravens are the stuff legends are made of. The Native people of the Pacific Northwest consider ravens intelligent and mysterious but utter scoundrels that brought fire to people by stealing it from the sun. When the world lived in darkness, the ravens, who always existed, were fed up with bumping into things all the time and heard singing in the sky. The song was about a series of boxes housed inside boxes in even more boxes and hidden deep inside was light. The raven used all his wits and with cunning persistence was able to steal the light from the sun and brighten the world.  Native people also believe that these bird would steal salmon only to drop them in rivers to breed throughout the world. 

In Norse mythology there is a story of a pair of ravens that were named Hugin and Muninn, which means thought and memory in Old Norse language .  They flew all over the world to gather information for the pagan god, Odin, who is related to healing, royalty, knowledge, battle, death, sorcery and even poetry. 

Another famous legend in England said their were many ravens living in the Tower of London. They were symbols of prophecy and it was believed that they could predict the outcome of battles and if they ever left, the entire British Empire would fall. The Tower was once home to the King’s Observatory. It was said that an astronomer, John Flamsteed, complained about the ravens in the Tower. He was unable to see anything in the sky because the ravens were blocking his telescope.  King Charles would not challenge the fate of the myth so he moved the Observatory to Greenwich. The ravens remained in the tower.

In the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions the raven was the first animal to be released from Noah’s Ark. “So it came to pass, at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. Then he sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.”

In general, cultural depiction of the raven in Western tradition is that of a bad omen. The negative symbolism comes from the association of the color black  to death and the bird eating carrion. The Germans say the bird carries the souls of the damned.  In Sweden, ravens are seen as the ghosts of murdered people. But on a more positive note, the raven is the national bird of Bhutan, and the kings of Bhutan would wear a raven crown. It’s also the official bird of the Yukon territory in Canada. 

“Play” is a sign of intelligence. So it’s not surprising to learn that young ravens are among the most playful birds. For pure fun they have been seen to slide down snowbanks and it’s not uncommon to see them make their own toys by breaking twigs just to play and tease other young ravens. They will also tumble on air currents and  have outwitted scientists by completing puzzles, such as putting the correct shape in the correct hole in games. They mimic trainers and try to outsmart them. A very crafty bird in deed.

So when you see a raven flying, hear his call, be certain, he is as aware of you, as you are of this bird…

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door;

Only this, and nothing more.” 

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (1845)

Bird of the Week: Return of the Swallows

Yesterday midmorning I was on our deck looking down the hillside to see if any of our fruit trees were in blossom yet.  I had been sick with a terrible cold and wanted to get some fresh air.  All of a sudden soaring gracefully in the sky— there they were. The swallows had returned. I could feel my spirits lift.

Tree SwallowsTachycineta bicolor, are one of 89 species of swallows worldwide. Swallows appear on all continents except Antarctica. People can observe and take pictures, but don’t touch Swallows. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, in which it is prohibited to kill, capture, possess, sell, or ship these birds. This act also protects their nests and eggs. If you have a problem with nesting swallows contact a bird rescue organization near you for some advice.

The tree swallow is a migratory passerine bird that breeds in North America and winters in Mexico, Central America, only as far south as Honduras and the Caribbean, farther north than any other American swallows and return to their nesting grounds long before other swallows come back. They can survive the cold snaps and wintry weather of early spring because they will eat plant foods as well as their normal flying insects.

Their bill is short and flat and opens real wide to feed on small, aerial insects that they catch in their mouths during acrobatic twists and turns with their iridescent blue-green feathers flashing in the sunlight.  A spectacle to watch. We can actually watch them off our deck acrobatically catch insects in their wide opened mouths in mid-air.  They feed in open areas full of flying insects, usually foraging no more than 40 feet from the ground from dawn to dusk. Throughout North America they are a familiar sight in summer fields and wetlands.  This morning I saw less than a dozen but I could hear more of them in the nearby trees. They are responsive to climate changes since the 1960s with the warming spring. These birds on average now lay their eggs nine days earlier in the year.

They nest in cavities of trees near water. They will use nest boxes and we have attached a couple to the underside corner of our deck that looks out over the hillside. We also put a couple nest boxes on some nearby trees. There is a declines in cavity-builder populations. Cornell Lab of Ornithology talks about this conservation concern,

“Tree Swallows are common but their populations declined by 1 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 36 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey… Tree Swallow numbers are probably most limited by available nest sites, and as people put up more nest boxes their range has been expanding, particularly southward. But boxes account for only a small fraction of Tree Swallow nest sites. Natural cavities, where most Tree Swallows build their nests, have been disappearing for the past 200 years as people clear the land, manage woodlands, cut down older trees, and remove dead trees.”  In spite of all this their numbers are still in a healthy range.

Tree Swallows pair up to breed but are often a bit promiscuous, secretly mating outside the pair. Poor male will have to attends to two mates in separate nest sites helping to feed the little ones. The female lays four to seven white eggs and incubates them by herself. The eggs hatch in about 14 days and fledging in 16–24 days.

If you are lucky you might see these agile fliers do the most amazing things. I remember once being blown away by watching a tree swallow skim it’s bodies against the surface of the water on the lake to bathe. It’s like a quick shower by air, barely touching the surface of the water that sprays a gentle mist into into the air on their feathers. Afterwards they just keep flying ruffling their feathers a bit to shake off any drops of water.

It’s not easy being a Tree Swallow having many nest predators including raccoons, black bears, chipmunks, mink, weasels, feral cats, Common Grackles, American Crows, and Northern Flickers. Outside the nest, adults are hunted by Sharp-shinned Hawks, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, Great Horned Owls, and Black-billed Magpies.

For now I am looking forward to seeing them nest in our boxes and watching the little ones fledge hoping these sweet little birds all survive and keep their numbers stable against all odds. I created the above photo-painting of this magnificent bird.