Siskin in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

This colourful small finch passes through my Ulverston garden each year in early spring. They are usually seen for about a week sometime in March or the first days of April. When we first started seeing them many years ago they were attracted to peanuts in red mesh hangers. Now that we put out Niger seed, usually for the Goldfinches, the Siskin ignore the peanuts and go straight for the Niger. On the day I took this photo we had two on the Niger feeder while four others were content to “hoover” up the seed that had fallen on the ground beneath. Siskin are not noted for ground feeding so the Niger seed must be very attractive.

Readily recognised by the yellow wing bar on black wings this finch surprises you by its size, being little larger than a Blue Tit. Males are more brightly coloured with a characteristic black cap, while females are the paler and more heavily streaked of the two.

They were relatively scarce in Cumbria until the middle of the 20th century but, as elsewhere in the country, numbers increased dramatically once conifer plantations planted after the First World War started to mature. As natural seed sources became exhausted in spring they were tempted into gardens by the fashion of planting conifers as evergreens and discovered bird feeders in the process!

The main breeding strongholds are in the Grizedale, Whinlatter and Border forests. In winter they roam in flocks of up to 100 seeking out Pine and Spruce but moving out of the conifer forest once the supply of seed is depleted, when Alder and Birch are sought. There is a movement of British birds southwards in winter with birds from Scandinavia joining them. It is these birds that pass through gardens when returning north in March. Pairing occurs in the winter flocks and, once back in the breeding area, a nest is built high in a conifer hanging from an outer branch.

A small group twittering and piping as they breeze through riverside Alders, perhaps with a Redpoll or two, is a sight to be remembered. The bright yellow rump of the male is very striking.

Although there is still plenty of maturing conifer forest in the county the current plan is to replace it with native broad-leaved species as the timber is harvested. This may, in time, reduce the numbers of breeding Siskin.

The similar sized Lesser Redpoll also has a black bib but there the similarity ends. Small flocks of 10 to 30 are seen in the county during the winter. Although an irruptive species it does seem to have undergone a steep decline in numbers and it is now scarcer as a breeding bird than the Siskin. It’s preference for new growth in recently felled areas has hindered its progress and it has disappeared from many areas where it was once found – for example in the Furness peninsula. This is an attractive finch, especially a male with its scarlet cap and flushed chest …but they are not all as bright as the one in the photo! Females have no pink on the breast and juveniles have no coloured cap.

If you were playing bird bingo then the image below might represent “house full” – it also gives a comparison of size for three of our colourful finches, the Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Goldfinch!