With our Siskins likely to leave any day now after their winter stay, this seems as good a time as any to resurrect Monday Bird of the Week (and my 250th post to this blog!).
We’ve had about five-to-ten of these green-yellow finches in the garden for a good two months now, and they have been pretty much ever-present in the garden in that time, dawn till dusk, either on the feeders or chattering away in their odd electronic language from the trees. But soon they will leave, heading back to their breeding sites. This could be North into Scotland, or across the North Sea into Scandinavia and Russia. They also breed in Wales. Birds do live and breed off across Asia too, but it’s unlikely the birds we see here would follow such a route. Pairs that have established this winter in our garden will stay together to breed in spring and summer.
The males and females are easily distinguished, the male being a brighter green and with a black cap. The female slightly pale, but with an attractively stripy appearance.
It’s no surprise they have stayed together in this little group as studies have shown they are extremely social and form highly cohesive flocks. Their constant and complex vocalisations can make it sound like a larger flock than is actually the case, and I have heard one male singing in an overlapping cacophony that could easily have been mistake for two or three individuals. This social dynamic continues through the breeding season and, like Dunnocks, non-breeding subordinates may help with feeding the young of more established pairs.
They are tiny, the smallest of the five finch species we’ve had in our garden this winter, but acrobatic and fearless. Whereas some of the other finches, notably Bullfinches, will generally flee if we are in the garden, the siskins will tolerate you standing only a few metres away while they eat. They are also pretty feisty and are not easily bullied off a food source despite the Goldfinches and Greenfinches being larger.
Away from a feeder they eat seeds and perch and hang from the tiniest branches. Bird books say they don’t like eating on the floor, but this winter we’ve often seen all of ours happily seeking out spilt seed on the ground. As always, don’t assume what you read is consistent for all birds!
Like many finches they have been kept as caged songbirds. I’m not a great fan of this, especially when you have a bird with such complex social interactions. I suspect this explains the problems they often have breeding in captivity.
Finally, and to my great delight, it turns out there is a Czech folk song, Čížečku, čížečku, connected to Siskins, centring around their apparent contribution to spreading poppy seeds. If your Czech is any good, there is a video here featuring a caged bird too:
According to Wikipedia the lyrics, in a call and refrain fashion, are:
“Siskin, o little Siskin, a little birdie,
Tell me o Siskin how the poppy is sowed”
“This is how the poppies are sowed”
As the song progresses you go through growing, blossoming, harvesting, milling and eating.
It’s always fantastic to see where birds and human culture connect.