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A Tribute Article to the Late Frances Dennis

Photo by Maria DeLaney Photography

Pine Siskin, Spinus pinus 

This article is dedicated to the passing of one-half of my favorite birding couple.  After just talking with my dear Aunt Marilyn, I write today, who told me that Uncle Frank, Frances Dennis, passed last night at the good age of 91.  He was a kind, generous, and loving man, my father’s only brother, a wise teacher, and an excellent birder who enjoyed my passion for these gems of creation.  

Thomas Dennis

I classify Pine Siskins as another LBJ or “little brown job.” They are in the same genus as the American Goldfinch, and they are often seen feeding with them during the fall and winter months, as shown in my friend Maria DeLaney’s photograph.  As you check your feeders, you may think you are watching a goldfinch in winter plumage; however, look closely; further inspection with careful consideration for a couple of conspicuous features will help you identify what may be a Pine Siskin.  They are tiny at one-half of an ounce and measure three-to-five inches in height than the five-to-nine inch American Goldfinch.  They have white underparts and brown upperparts with brown streaking throughout and yellow (or tawny) at the base of the short, forked tail and on the wings, including a bold wing bar of the same color that shows during flight.  The best identification feature for me is the thin, sharply pointed bill.  This feature best sets them apart from the goldfinch with its much thicker, finch-like bill.

Unlike American Goldfinches (hopefully, you remember that they remain here during the winter, albeit in drab camouflage), siskins are migratory, with a year-round range in northern states and high elevations, including northern Michigan. They breed in most of the Canadian provinces as far north as mid-Alaska.   Many individuals travel south for the winter, covering all of the continental United States and much of Mexico’s lower elevations.  It has a reputation as the most common of the irruptive “winter finches,”; a group of birds that move further south during harsh winters or years of poor natural seed production.  They often spend the winters here; however, they are seen only as they pass through some years.

Their song is a cheery twitter that mixes an occasional high-pitched warble with a preponderance of buzzy “ZZzzrree” notes.  We are most likely to hear the call note in Southeastern Michigan since the song is typically reserved for the breeding season.  This sound is a short, drawn-out “zhreee” that rises in pitch, and I can’t think of another winter bird that makes this call in our area.  If you hear this sound, check the thistle and black oil sunflower feeders and surrounding trees and ground.  The name Siskin is derived from its sound, and therefore the common name is in reality “pine chirper.”

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During the summer, they eat many insects, especially aphids, and I wish they were common locally to provide this particular pest control specialty!  Small seeds make up most of Pine Siskin’s diet with a strong preference for thistle, birch, and spruce seeds.  When feeding on conifers, they often hang upside down from the tips of the branches.  They also serve us well by gleaning common pest seeds, including; dandelion, crabgrass, chickweed, and ragweed.  The diet also includes some “greens,” including young buds of willow, elm, and maple and the stems and leaves of weeds and even young garden vegetables.  

They can endure and survive in extremely cold temperature conditions due to a metabolic rate that is about 40% higher than a “normal” songbird of comparable size.  When temperatures plunge as low as -94 degrees F, they can accelerate that rate up to five times for several hours.  They also put on half again as much winter fat as their redpoll and goldfinch relatives…so you see, we too are justified in putting on a few extra pounds, or more, to ensure our survival over the fast approaching and severe winter!

I close, trusting that Uncle Frank is sharing his amazement of birds with his Savior and our Creator, and I truly hope to see him in the not-too-distant future.

If you wish to learn more about birds, you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot.  Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society,” for meeting details and be sure to friend us. 


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