Pine Siskin

Carduelis pinus
Range Map

The Pine Siskin’s breeding range stretches across almost the entirety of Canada, Alaska and, to a more variable degree, across the western mountains and northern regions of the United States. Normally, these birds live in environments at elevation, but some of those shown below were found in my southern California yard (elevation 512 feet).

Their nomadic lifestyle is driven by the abundance or absence of seed crops. We might see sizable flocks in an area one year and none the next.

These birds are adapted to survive in cold climates by an ability to fire up their metabolism on frigid nights. By using seeds collected during the day and stored in their crops, they have an additional energy source to get through the night’s coldest hours. Females will remain sitting on a well-insulated nest taking food from her mate to protect her eggs and young from extreme cold.

Modern taxonomists recognise three subspecies of Pine Siskin:

  • S. p. pinus lives from southern Alaska east to the Canadian Maritime Provinces, south over most of the USA west of the Great Plains, and to Baja California, central Arizona, and New Mexico. East of the plains, they have bred south into Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and east to New England. They spend winters at lower elevations throughout most of its breeding range, with some birds moving south to northern Mexico.
  • S. p. macropterus lives in the mountains of western Mexico from Sonora south across the Trans-volcanic Belt.
  • S. p. perplexus lives in the highlands of southern Mexico and northern Central America.

I always enjoy meeting these birds. Perhaps my favorite encounter happened at Mono Lake north of Lee Vining (California), when I found a mixed flock of Cassin’s Finches and Pine Siskins feasting on the blooms of a large Siberian Elm tree at a roadside picnic area. Observing both similar-looking, but different-sized, species was a learning opportunity for me.

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