Goldfinch or Pine Siskin? How to Tell Who's at Your Feeders

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

One morning a few weeks ago, I walked downstairs and looked out my front window to my feeding station (as I do every morning), expecting to see the usual characters: chickadees, nuthatches, a couple hairy woodpeckers, goldfinches. I glanced at each feeder to see who was there, and noticed a small goldfinch dining alone at my Cylinder Feeder. I walked by the window, then did a double take and realized that it wasn't a goldfinch, it was a Pine Siskin! As I scanned the cedars above the station I noticed that the trees were alive with siskins, bouncing from limb to limb, feasting on the seeds.

The 2020-2021 Winter Finch Forecast that was published just a couple weeks prior to my first Pine Siskin sighting had mentioned that while most would remain in Western Canada where spruce cone crops are plentiful, smaller numbers of Pine Siskins in the eastern boreal forest would move southward in search of food. I was hopeful that I would see some at my feeders this winter, but did not expect the influx that is occurring across the province this early in the season. In addition to large numbers of Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches who recently wrapped up their breeding season are also flocking to backyard feeding stations. These two finch species eat the same foods, feed at the same feeders, are similar in appearance, and share some of the same behaviours as one another, making it tough for the naked eye to tell the two apart. 

Pine Siskin (L) & American Goldfinch in nonbreeding plumage (R)
Pine Siskin photo by Missy Mandel

How to tell who's who
Now for the fun part.. telling the difference between the two. Correctly differentiating Pine Siskin from American Goldfinch - and vice versa - can be a difficult task, particularly when they all mingle together and flit about between feeders and trees at great swpeed. Here are a few key differences to look for to help you keep track of who's in your yard:

  • Plumage: The easiest way to distinguish the two species if you're able to get a close enough look. Pine Siskins are overall brown with heavy streaking over most of the body, subtle yellow edging on the wings and tail, and notched tail that is forked when in flight. In the winter, American Goldfinches sport nonbreeding plumage (see photo above) that is a pale brown with no streaking, black wings, and light yellow tones on the face and head. (Click here for a guide to American Goldfinch plumage throughout the seasons)
  • Bill: Pine Siskins have a uniquely shaped bill that is narrow and fine-tipped to aid in extracting seeds conifer cones. American Goldfinches have more typical conical shaped bill. 
  • Size: Though similar in overall body length & wingspan, Pine Siskins are slightly smaller in stature than American Goldfinches. 
  • Behaviour: Both Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches tend to travel in relatively large flocks, and can be found clinging to branches while extracting seed from cedars, pines, and other conifers. Pine Siskins are typically a little more feisty than goldfinches, tussling with each other in mid-air and at feeders, and incessantly twittering as a flock. Click here to listen to Pine Siskin calls, and here to listen to American Goldfinch calls. 

American Goldfinches (L) & Pine Siskins (R) by Missy Mandel

Attracting Pine Siskins & American Goldfinches to your yard

These two species are like peas in a pod when it comes to diet and foraging habits, making it easier for us to attract them both to our yards. These birds have a preference for smaller seeds such as nyjer and sunflower chips (Finch Blend is a favourite!), and will readily visit feeders that are stocked with fresh seed. Preferred feeder styles are finch & tube feeders, but they will happily perch on tray, hopper, or cylinder feeders as well. Pine Siskins in particular are quite gregarious at feeders, often fighting over perches and feeders. Providing multiple feeders can help decrease competition between them. Providing fresh water is always a great way to help the birds and attract a wide variety of species to your yard, and installing a heated birdbath ensures that the birds have an source of open water to drink from throughout the cold winter months. Converting snow to liquid to keep hydrated takes a lot of energy, so most bird species naturally prefer to drink water for hydration rather than expend energy that could be utilized for maintaining body heat instead.

Winter birding season hasn't even officially begun yet and it's already shaping up to be an incredible one. While we may not be ready for the white stuff just yet, we are definitely ready for the birds! 

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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