Under the Open Sky: Feeders Full of Fall Finches

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle
I was excited to see a flock of Pine Siskins arrive at my feeders this week, fresh from their summer homes and ready to fill my bird watching hours with their feisty charms — that is until I realized just how many of them there were.
I have become a slave to the siskins, filling three feeders with multiple scoops of sunflower seeds several times each day.
In addition to the siskins, the huge flock of American Goldfinches has stayed longer than usual (probably due to the extended summer we’ve all enjoyed) and the resident House Finches. My feeders are chock full of finches.
So far this month I have spent more on wild bird seed and dog food than I have spent on my own dining.

But finches are my favorite family, from the huge, prehistoric-looking Evening Grosbeaks (due to arrive in winter) to the tiny Pine Siskins. I love them all.

Kim Mason / For The Chronicle. A Pine Siskin (right) picks a fight with a juvenile American Goldfinch (center).
Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle. There is plenty of seed available to feed the flock of fifty mixed finches, but that doesn't keep the Pine Siskins from picking fights with their neighbors. Bickering and threatening displays of aggression often end in a vertical battle. The scrappy siskins will take on any bird, from the comparatively giant Evening Grosbeaks to fellow finches of similar size.

American Goldfinches
Goldfinches have usually left my backyard and flown away to gentler climes with more abundant food. This is the first year I have had the opportunity to see the juvenile and adult birds don their winter clothes.
The male goldfinches have traded their neon bright yellow feathers for a smoky gray brown, leaving a little bib of yellow under their chins.
The females have turned a dull gray and look quite similar to the Pine Siskins, except the siskins sport prominent streaking across their backs and under their breasts.
You can tell a youngster from an adult by the cinnamon-buff tinge to the bars on their wings, the adults carry creamy white stripes.
Goldfinches are normally at their most aggressive during nesting season, but it seems the Pine Siskin feisty nature calls out the fighter in them.

Kim Mason / For The Chronicle. Three finches: House Finch female (left), Pine Siskin (middle), American Goldfinch (at right). In mid-October is quite common to see a mixed flock of finches like these three. The goldfinches will probably move on soon to be replaced by the Evening Grosbeaks (also members of the finch family) as they move down from their summer northern mountain homes.

Pine Siskins
The siskins start the attack by lowering their heads and spreading their wings. They quickly follow up with a vicious lunge if they aren’t taken seriously by their opponent.
If the challenge is taken up by the other bird, the pair vault vertically into the air — bills open, spewing harsh threat calls — until one of them turns to leave the confrontation, leaving behind a winner.
I have seen the little siskins try to shoo the much larger Evening Grosbeaks from their little seed holdings, but the bigger birds rarely even bother to look their way. In fact, the grosbeaks would often shy away from the siskins, but whenever a truly presumptuous siskin would get under their skin all it took was an extended, imposing bill heading their way and the siskin would immediately (and most prudently) back away from the confrontation.
I can’t wait for the grosbeaks to arrive.

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Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer and photojournalist. Visit her website at almostdailynews.com, find her on Facebook (Kimberly Mason — The Chronicle), call 269-5017 or email kim@almostdailynews.com.