By Charlotte Owen
The bird feeders are still busy as winter melts into spring. A plentiful supply of seed will often attract a charm of twittering goldfinches or boisterous greenfinches – but a closer look among the regular diners may reveal a less familiar garden visitor.
At first glance, a female siskin could easily be mistaken for a smaller, streakier greenfinch but the males are distinctly different, with canary-yellow plumage and a smart black cap and bib. The siskin was once known as the black-headed goldfinch, on a say-what-you-see basis, and also as the barley bird, presumably because it was often seen at sowing time. Like its fellow finches, the siskin is a seed specialist and has a dainty, pointed beak for teasing out small seeds from alder, birch and spruce cones. When these become scarce or close up in damp weather, siskins will visit gardens in search of sunflower hearts, niger seed and peanuts for a much-needed boost in protein and fat.
Travel back in time by about 50 years and this would have been almost unheard of, with siskins only rarely passing through gardens, perhaps pausing briefly to snack on seed-bearing trees. Today there are more siskins to go around, mainly thanks to an increase in breeding habitat provided by maturing conifer plantations, and far more people are feeding the birds, so the odds of a garden visit have increased. But there’s also some fascinating evidence that seems to document siskins learning to use feeders by example. When the behaviour was first noticed in the late 1960s, an appeal for information was published in the journal British Birds and the responses revealed an interesting pattern. People tended to observe one or two siskins on garden feeders initially, followed by a rapid increase in numbers. Being noisy birds, their presence in a garden could easily attract other wandering foragers to see what the fuss was about, but it seems they were also deliberately communicating the location of good feeding areas. Like many small birds, siskins roost communally overnight to keep warm and it’s likely that birds in the know led their fellow foragers back to the bird table the following morning.