Mystery Bird: Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus

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[Mystery bird] Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Richard Ditch, 2008 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2008:04:16 08:46:29
Exposure Time: 1/319
F-Number: 5.60
ISO: 320

Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
Start at the back, start at the back! We see a short-tailed bird with a long wingtip, and both wing and tail show yellow: simple feather edgings in the wing, but a significant basal patch in the tail. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two North American birds that show such a pattern: Yellow Warbler and Pine Siskin. The streaked undertail coverts rule out the warbler. So is this a Pine Siskin?
A careful look at the wing pattern shows that the yellow feather edgings actually broaden into a patch at the base of the primaries. Otherwise, the generally drab, finely streaked plumage is relieved by only the well-defined whitish wingbars. The face is blank, the eye small, and the bill clearly sharp-pointed, with a perfectly straight culmen (the ridge of the upper mandible). This is a Pine Siskin.
The major confusion species here is not, of course, Yellow Warbler, but another streaky finch, the House Finch. Not all Pine Siskins are as yellow as this individual, and birders unfamiliar with the species often try to make the abundant House Finch into a siskin. House Finch, though, is much muddier in appearance that the relatively neat, if drab, siskin. Its tail is broader and its wings are shorter (logically enough: House Finches are mostly sedentary, while Pine Siskins are given to nomadism). The ground color of the body is brown rather than off-white, and the dark eye is large, giving the bird a distinctly different “face” than the beady-eyed little siskin. House Finches also have large, rather squarish heads, while siskins look like they would buy their hats in the kids’ department. And the bill shapes are completely different. Think about it this way: if a siskin wanted to hurt you, it would stab you; if a House Finch was intent on harm, it would bite, putting to good use a thick, hooked bill with a strongly curved culmen.
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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus

  1. Lloyd French says:

    Looks like a pine siskin to me!

  2. Pine siskin all the way. The little bits of yellow point the way, and then the slightly too-pointy-for-house-finch beak seals the deal.

  3. KB says:

    Pine siskin. I love these guys – the fluctuations in their sightings over the past few winters here in the Northwest has me worried, though.

  4. JPS says:

    I answer the mystery bird posts without looking at any other sites or guides. In NY I would say pine siskin, assuming AZ has pine siskins and no other similar species I’ll also say pine siskin.

  5. Selasphorus says:

    I’m going with Pine Siskin.

  6. Spinus says:

    Me too. Pine Siskin. I hope I’ll see some this fall.

  7. Tom R says:

    On the surface, it appears to be a pine siskin. However, the bill shape looks interestingly too heavy for siskin – a hybrid of some type. The bird appears crouched and may be ready to spring into flight – is that why it appears ‘heavier’ than siskins I am familiar with. The primary projection doesn’t look long enough but could be the angle. I don’t see the distinct auriculars that I would expect on pure siskin.
    I would mark this as carduelis sp. not specifically identifed.

  8. birdie says:

    looks like a pine siskind the breast streaking is too much for a yellow rumped warbler in the fall and it has that finch beak

  9. bobk says:

    Pine Siskin.
    I agree with Tom R that the beak seems too heavy. But, I think if it was closed it would look smaller, similar to the same effect in a swallow.
    I wonder where the name Siskin comes from.

  10. JohnB says:

    Looks like a garden variety Pine Siskin to me.

  11. i looked around to find the origin of the word, “siskin”, and found that it comes from the swedish, “siska”, which means “chirper”, although my attempts to confirm that have yielded nothing.

  12. Rick Wright says:

    The name is probably echoic–it works best in those languages where the cognate begins with a ts or tch sound.
    I can’t see anything out of the ordinary about this bird’s bill shape or wing structure.

  13. Rick Wright says:

    I’ve posted to birdchat a little documentation for the theory advanced above about the word “siskin.”

  14. Bob O'H says:

    My dictionary gives kvittra for to chirp, but that doesn’t mean siska is wrong. Have you asked Martin Rundkvist?

  15. Bob O'H says:

    I also checked the OED, which is of some help. Here’s their etymology:

    [ad. G. dial. sisschen or zeischen, = older Flem. sijsken, cijsken (Kilian; Du. and Flem. sijsje), Da. sisgen, a dim. form based on MHG. zîsec (also zîse; G. zeisig), MLG. ziseke, sisek (Norw. sisik, sisk, Sw. siska), which are app. of Slavonic origin; cf. Pol. czy{zdotab}ik, czy{zdotab}, Russ. chizhek’, chizh’.]

    OK, not much help then.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    Saw this little bird at my bird feeder today. Tipped upside down as the gold finch’s do at the feeder. Anyone else heard of these birds or any others that eat niger seed updside down.
    WOuld love some feedback.