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Surge of pine siskins means dead birds, but also new neighbors

by on April 30, 2013

pine siskin, Carduelis pinus
pine siskin, Carduelis pinus. Creative Commons photo by Becky Gregory.

Back in January, we ran a short post about how pine siskins were showing up at Marin County bird feeders in surprising numbers and then dying. At that point, it seemed like the feeders themselves might be at fault, as vectors carrying pathogens like Salmonella.

But thanks to a newsletter article by Diana Granados, who serves on the board of Mount Diablo Audubon Society, we learned that this is a more complex, but apparently natural phenomenon called an irruption–a sudden surge dispersal of an animal from its core range out into many places and habitats where it is not usually found.

We received comments from worried readers in Santa Cruz, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington state. All had found dead siskins at their feeders. Clearly this is a national event.

I called Granados this morning to get more detail from her about what’s going on. In addition to serving on Mount Diablo Audubon’s board, Granados runs Native Bird Connections, a bird education group, and worked in wildlife rescue for many years.

In a nutshell: Those dead birds at your feeder are evidence of the kinds of population dynamics that allow species to disperse into new habitats, and also reduce stress on their core habitat. Every few years, siskins flee their home ranges in droves and go south.

The Audubon Society (here) says there’s no definitive answer to why pine siskins irrupt some years and not others, but they do say this about the closely related common redpoll: “There is speculation that this variation in food production is an evolutionary strategy that forces these birds south every few years, thereby reducing their long-term impact on the plants. The same may be true for Pine Siskins. In years when Pine Siskins appear in either Southern California or North Carolina, food abundance in their typical wintering grounds may be low.”

Granados explained to me that the siskins we’ve seen in California likely came down from their core ranges up in Oregon and Washington, where recent drought conditions and widespread fires might have reduced the favored food source, the seeds of pines and other conifers.

So they came here, and other birds fled south to Texas, Georgia, etc., looking for food. At that point, it was “move, adapt, or die,” a common theme when food sources suddenly disappear.

“A lot of us would be thrilled to see pine siskins in our yards, maybe for the first time,” Granados said. “But then when we started to see three or four dead birds, it became ‘What am I doing?’ In a sense, we weren’t doing anything. Salmonella is a common bacteria. The bird could carry it for years, but under a barrage of different kinds of attacks on that species, it can bloom.”

As for bird feeders causing the spread, Granados explains that regularly cleaning feeders is a good idea in any season, but pulling out feeders won’t save any birds during an irruption. The pine siskins are irrupting because that’s what they do.

To birders watching their backyard feeders, it might seem like substantially more birds are dying at the feeders. That’s possible, especially if the birds were without feeding territory anyway and therefore looking for food. But it’s just as likely that siskins are dying in the woods, and we just don’t know it. If a tree can fall in the woods and no one knows, then a bird that weighs half an ounce can certainly die unnoticed.

But the news isn’t all bad. In prime siskin habitat up north, home ranges will be wide open for the young birds that survived there, who will likely do quite well now that there’s less competition for home ranges and food.

And some of the birds that have visited California, Texas, or North Carolina might just stick around. “The pine siskins could decide, wow, this is a habitat we haven’t explored yet,” said Granados. “Mount Diablo has some wonderful pines, and people have planted plines, even if they’re not always native. So in irruptive situations we could have a component of birds decide that they could actually live here.”

If that happens, we’ll have resident pine siskins, at least for a while, because of this one spring when we all saw a lot of dead birds. Or as Granados says, “It would probably have come about due to these territorial changes that come back to this idea of Move, Adapt, or Die.”

You can see Granados’s original article on page 8 of this PDF and read about irruptions generally on the national Audubon website.

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Robert on April 30th, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for your very informative article. I’ll certainly keep you updated with my Pine Siskin numbers here in Dallas, if they decide to stick around past mid-May. No doubt they have been the dominant bird at my thistle tubes and my sunflower heart feeders for the last 4&1/2 months. One pleasant surprise from this big migration has been the possible impact on my House Sparrow numbers. They seem to be significantly less. It’s not science, but I’ve shot hundreds of hours of video of the birds at my feeders over the last year or so and this big influx of Pine Siskins over the last few months has certainly altered the overall small bird balance in my backyard. Of course this will likely change if the Siskins migrate back. This unusual irruption of Siskins has not seemed to negatively effect my better wildbirds that visit my feeders.—Off topic somewhat, but my House Finch numbers have really been poor over the last 9 months. Thanks again for your article.

Jeannie on May 1st, 2013 at 11:00 am

Thank you for the update.

Diane on May 16th, 2013 at 8:38 am

I have experienced the same influx of pine siskins. I counted almost 50 at my feeders and eating on the ground. They have been here for over 4 months, and seem to be leaving now. I did not see any dead birds, but we are on 12 acres, so they wouldn’t necessarily be noticed. It disrupted my native birds at the feeders, but I have 10 feeders, and plenty for everyone. I think they are fairly aggressive at the feeders, so the others shied away during their normal feeding times. I was going through 50 pounds of thistle in less than a month. Kind of glad for the break! I did enjoy watching them!

Diane on May 16th, 2013 at 8:40 am

Oh, and the siskins replaced the huge numbers of American Goldfinches that I had last year – only saw about 3 or 4 the whole season.

Robert on May 16th, 2013 at 9:51 pm

Hi Diane, Looks like we had the same experience over the last several months with the Pine Siskins. May 13 was the last day I captured video of them at my feeders. God love em’, but it is a lot of maintenance to clean up behind them. I agree it’s sad to see them go, but this has been such a huge migration that the #’s visiting my feeders were often absolutely overwhelming. I had a pretty good balance of Goldfinches and Pine Siskins during the early Winter months, but then the Pine Siskin #’s kept increasing, and increasing, and no doubt probably resulted in running off many of my Goldfinches by March 15 , or so. Sometimes I saw some aggressive behavior from the Pine Siskins, but normally amongst themselves. I guess that’s what happens when there’s dozens in line waiting to eat. Often they would defend their perched position against some of my House Sparrows, so that was ok. But, most often I would see them enjoying each other’s company at the feeder, or the company of other birds. No doubt the huge # of Pine Siskins I had displaced a lot of my Sparrows, so that was interesting to observe how it affected the HOSP’s. But, it was certainly a big irruptive migration ! It will be interesting to see what happens next Winter and Spring. Cheers-

Teresa Croft on August 22nd, 2013 at 10:45 am

I really don’t understand what all this means but I know my new puppy ( 9 months old ) kept bringing dead birds to my back door. I fussed at her because I thought that she was killing them and bringing to the door. I don’t know what to do because she is a boxer pup and I’ve really gave her a hard time because I am a bird lover and maybe I fussed at her for nothing because I didn’t see her messing with them. She just brought them to my back door.

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