Dear Readers, it is always a pleasure to spot an unusual visitor to the garden, and an even greater pleasure when I actually have my camera handy. So it was with this lovely male siskin who dropped in for about twenty minutes last week, in the middle of the first bout of very cold weather that we’ve had here in London. I almost tripped over the cat in my excitement, for I know that these birds are usually just passing through, and won’t be seen again until next winter. And what an attractive bird he is, with his black cap and yellow breast. When he flew off, he looked briefly like a mottled canary.
Siskins are members of the finch family, and like most finches have, in their time, been popular cage birds. In The Birds of Norfolk, Henry Stevenson recorded no other finches that
‘…so soon became tame and contented with their new existence’.
The siskin was known to London bird-catchers as ‘Aberdevine’, and they were a premium bird, commanding a higher price than goldfinches or chaffinches on account of their rarity, and of their soft sweet song. Siskins were often crossed with canaries to create ‘mules’ who had the singing power of one parent, and the attractive plumage of the other. Fortunately, these days it’s illegal to trap wild birds in the UK, but this still happens in other parts of the world.
The name ‘siskin’ is said to be an onomatopoeic name, derived from its call. This is described in the Crossley ID guide as
‘Main call a sissy, feeble, sighing dwee with metallic ring: also making sparrow-like calls and song is quiet babbling chatter interspersed with little flatulent buzzes’.
Well, as the bird in my garden was silent, I decided to have a listen to see how accurate the description was. Having listened to the link on the RSPB website here, I can vouch for the dwees and even the sissys, but I am missing out on the flatulent buzzes.
Siskins are residents of most of the UK, mainly due to the spread of conifer plantations in Wales, Scotland and the north and west of England – the birds’ main diet is the seeds of mature cone-bearing trees. In the rest of the country, including London, they may feed on wild birch and alder seeds as they head through to their breeding grounds, but, since the 1960’s, have increasingly been seen in gardens. We can date this sudden change of habit to the ferocious winter of 1963, when a group of siskins were suddenly spotted in gardens in Guildford, Surrey.In ‘The Secret Lives of Garden Birds’ Dominic Couzens has a very interesting suggestion about why the birds might suddenly have moved into gardens. Back in the 1960’s, most people offered food to birds in red net bags (no longer considered a good idea, as birds easily become entangled in the mesh). The alder seeds that the birds normally eat could, it’s been argued, be seen as tiny little red nets full of seeds. Imagine the surprise of a siskin suddenly noticing what seemed to be the biggest alder basket in the world! It’s a lovely idea but, as Couzens says, impossible to prove.
As siskins roost together in flocks, it’s thought that they might share information about food sources, which accounts for some gardens in the north being visited by dozens of the birds. Here in London, we have to make do with the odd pair or individual, but we are very grateful for whoever pops in!
Siskins are known to form pair bonds during the winter months, and to keep to these relationships even when they have a substantial onward migration. For, while some of these birds may make a relatively short journey to Wales or the north of England, ringed birds have been recovered in the far north of Scotland and in Scandinavia. So, the bond between male and female is strong enough to survive a crossing of the North Sea, with all the hazards that this involves. Not bad for a bird that’s smaller than a greenfinch.Although in winter siskins can be fairly docile, they are much more secretive during the breeding season – this has led to a German legend that siskins keep a magic stone in their nests that makes them invisible. The birds have also been seen ‘allofeeding’ – this is where adults regurgitate food for more dominant individuals of the same sex, and is very unusual. It’s been speculated that this helps to maintain flock cohesion, and also indicates that there is a dominance hierarchy in the group, rather than just a collection of individuals who are staying together for safety and food location. It’s also an indication that, unlike many other birds, the siskin can store a little extra food intact in the crop, to help to feed them through the night – pigeons can also do this.
Although ‘my’ siskin was a fairly staid fellow, siskins are actually one of the few finches who seem to preferentially feed upside down, like miniature parakeets. This is another indication that the bird you’re looking at is not some unusually plumaged greenfinch, as those chaps are not ones for acrobatics.
In St Petersburg in Russia, the siskin has taken on a folkloric aspect. It is called the ‘Chizhik-Pyzhik’, and there is a statue of it near the First Engineer Bridge.
The name is used in a Russian folksong, the lyrics of which are below:
Chizhik-Pyzhik, where’ve you been?
Drank vodka on the Fontanka.
Took a shot, took another –
Oh dear. The tale goes that the students at the elite Imperial College of Jurisprudence wore uniforms in green and yellow, and so were named ‘Chizhik-Pyzhiks’ after the siskin, which is a common urban bird in the city. The statue itself has been stolen at least three times, probably because, at 11 centimetres tall and weighing less than 5 kilograms, it is a handy size to pop into a holdall and take away for scrap. There are rumours that the next replacement will be in marble, to deter the would-be thieves.
So, it turns out that my brief visitor is a European traveller, a parrot impersonator, a loyal mate and the inspiration for (possibly) the smallest statue in St Petersburg. God speed, little bird. May you have an abundance of pine-seeds and fair passage to your breeding grounds.
Photo One – “Alkottar” by No machine-readable author provided. EnDumEn assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alkottar.jpg#/media/File:Alkottar.jpg
Photo Two – “Carduelis spinus female” by Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk) – Sławek Staszczuk (photoss [AT] hotmail.co.uk). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg#/media/File:Carduelis_spinus_female.jpg
Photo Three –© Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Photo Four – “Chizhik-Pyzhik memorial” by zxc123 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg#/media/File:Chizhik-Pyzhik_memorial.jpg
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer
Resources used this week:
The Complete Back Garden Birdwatcher by Dominic Couzens
The Secret Lives of Garden Birds by Dominic Couzens
The Crossley ID Guide (Britain and Ireland) – Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens
Birds Britannica – Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.