Backyard Naturalist: Pine Siskins May Eat Seed Directly Out of Your Hand

Russ Mohney

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Jan. 7, 2005.

The current spell of nippy weather certainly got our resident songbirds in a tizzy. Every morning this week, there has been a near-riot around my largest feeder to see just who is next in line.

The little rascals are eating a lot in their attempt to generate enough internal heat to keep going, so much that I had to make an emergency run to the feed store for another sack of black oil sunflower and some millet to mix in with a small cask of specialty seed my daughter brought me.

I’ve had a pretty good mix of birds at the backyard feeder all through the fall, but I haven’t had many pine siskins yet. I particularly enjoy it when those little guys show up; they are among the tamest of wild birds in our area and I thoroughly enjoy feeding them out of my hand.

If you haven’t tried it, do so during the cold weather; it’s the easiest time to start, and the process is really quite simple.

Whenever you see a small flock of siskins around, you should go out and stand quietly near the feeder. Hold out a handful of sunflower seed mix and just wait a while. It usually doesn’t take long before one bird decides you aren’t some sort of bizarre trap and will land on a finger to collect a few seeds. Once the ice is broken, a number of siskins will begin feeding from your outstretched hand.

If you perform that ritual every morning for a few days, the neighborhood siskins will eventually come to associate you with a literal handout and come flocking whenever you walk across the yard. It’s pretty neat.

I know a couple of avid backyard birders who have tamed the chickadees that frequent their feeders in much the same manner. The first time I walked into one such yard and had a couple of black-caps immediately land on my shoulders, it was a little disconcerting, but it’s the kind of surprise one could easily become accustomed to!

Now that we have had some chilly weather, you might also want to think about putting a suet feeder in your yard if you haven’t already done so. Suet is the one food resource you can provide insectivores and other meat-eaters during the winter. It is an important addition to the backyard feeding program and one that becomes increasingly important during these cold snaps.

The little suet cakes you can buy at most feed stores, hardwares and discount places may contain any number of little added goodies for the birds, but they are mostly just beef fat, and that’s what the birds need to generate the internal heat that allows them to survive the cold in relative comfort.

I highly recommend you buy one of the little wire cages that are designed to hold a suet cake. When you hang one from a tree, a low-hanging eave or near the feeder, you’ll get a whole new collection of birds that weren’t attracted to your seed offerings.

The wire cage is a safe way to put out suet that the birds can exploit without smearing fat on their face or other feathers. The suet acts just like an oil spill on delicate feathers, and the cage keeps things safe and sanitary.

During these chill snaps, it is good to increase the percentage of sunflower seeds in the seed mix. Many people feed practically nothing else during the winter, but I still like to add a little millet and even some thistle seed to help keep a nice variety of birds about. Still, sunflower is the most valuable resource you can furnish when it’s cold out. The sunflower oil is the fat source that seedeaters use to fire their internal furnaces during the chilliest times.

One last consideration for the winter backyard feed program is a reliable source of fresh water. Even when it’s nippy out, the birds need to drink and will want to bathe almost daily.

If you will put some lukewarm water in your birdbath at midmorning, the supply will be available until dark, plenty of time for the birds to find and use it. Just make sure the water container is rinsed out and refreshed every day, if possible.