Tag Archives: Nyjer seed

Songbirds in Winter ~ Sharing Recent Letters from Readers

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)American Robin

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of Me         –  Emily Dickinson

Dear Gardening Friends,  Please forgive when I am slow to answer your kind and thoughtful letters. I am struggling with an elbow injury and have had to limit my writing and photography somewhat (with extreme reluctance!!!). I love to hear about your bird and butterfly encounters, so please, keep your letters coming–just know that I am slow! Warmest wishes, Kim

From Jeannette in Marblehead – Kim Happy New Year, So enjoy your emails.  Walter and I were in Gloucester in November and drove by your home to try to peak at your garden but of course, it was the end of November and the gardens were sleeping.   It looked enchanting with the little sparkling lights. A quick questions where does one find the Nyjer feeder and seeds.  We have been so unsuccessful, all our bird feeders in the past have become squirrel feeders. I  hope to come and see your gardens this Spring/Summer.

Dear Jeannette, We purchase Nyjer and safflower seeds from our local Essex Bird Shop and Pet Supply and I imagine most Mom and Pop type bird and pet supply shops stock both varieties of seeds as well as the Nyjer seed feeder. I like looking at the Duncraft website–they have quite a selection of Nyjer seed feeders. We have the very basic single tube feeders, but I lust after their three tube copper feeder. I wonder if they photoshopped all those finches!

From Judy in Gloucester –Thanks for the wonderful information, Kim.  I have what I think is a sparrow that spends each evening tucked into the corner of the little porch over my side door facing your house. S/he is there reliably every late afternoon as soon as it is dark and leaves in the early morning.  It was the same routine last year.  I’m wondering if it’s the same bird every evening and perhaps even the same bird last year and this.

Dear Judy, I can’t say for sure without seeing a photo or the actual bird, however, House Finches and European House Sparrows are well known for their habit of nesting in the eaves. We have had several pairs of House Finches build their nests on top of the porch pillars that are tucked under the porch roof, as well as House Sparrows sleeping overnight in the same areas, just as you describe yours. I would think it is the same bird every evening and possibly from year to year. House Sparrows are year round residents on Cape Ann (and nearly everywhere else).

From Joan in Gloucester –Dear Kim, As always, I enjoy your email messages. We use Nyger seed for one feeder, as well as sunflower seed for another and sunflower hearts for the third. We happily feed whoever comes to eat‹birds (our preference), but the cleverness and ingenuity of squirrels as well as their acrobatic antics have brought us much laughter over the years. For a while we tried many different types of feeders guaranteed to defeat squirrels, but found that the squirrels almost always could find their way to defeat the feeder designers.

It turns out that we also feed a lot of pigeons, starlings and other (I consider) less than appealing species of birds, but in the end, we are feeding hungry creatures who are our neighbors (including a brown rat who lives in the marsh next to our yard).

I love watching the various eaters and how they perch on nearby trees or shrubs waiting their turn, having little spats, diving in to disrupt each other, chasing each other away and reflecting the behavior of the humans who occupy our world in many of the same ways.

Thanks for your always wonderful photographs and the information that is so interesting.

Gratefully, Joan

From Diane in Ipswich –Hi Kim,I so enjoy your e-mails!  Today one of our “mystery birds” was identified in your e-mail!  We have had Eastern Towhees in our yard the past couple of weeks.  I could not find them in my Audubon book.  I saw Eastern Towhee mentioned in the e-mail and googled it to see what that was and voila!  There was our mystery bird!

We have also had many Pine Siskins lately.  I did not know what they were called either!

I too delight in watching the birds. I have two sets of feeders and keep them well stocked with Nyger, woodpecker food, black oil sunflowers and suet.  I also throw millet, sunflower and sometimes, as a treat, peanuts in the shell for the ground birds – and squirrels.  Since I have been doing that the squirrels leave the feeders alone.  Although watching their acrobatics on the feeders is very entertaining!

The birds I know the names of that are here in my Argilla Rd. Ipswich yard are chickadees, siskins, red & yellow finches, various sparrow like birds, a wren or two, towhees, titmouses, lots of juncos, two kinds of woodpeckers, mourning doves, blue jays and 3 or 4 pairs of cardinals.  Sometimes the chickadees will eat out of my hand.  What a feeling! Have a lovely day!

Dianne Fischbach

Ipswich Garden Club

CBR, CRS, GRI, Green

Broker / Owner

Coast & Country Real Estate

From the Byers in Gloucester – Thanks for your very interesting email on Pine Siskins! I have never been able to identify any on the feeders previously, but thanks to your excellent photo (which I printed & stuck in my bird book) I may now have a chance. We have all the rest of the gang, goldfinches, chickadees, 2 var of nuthatches, titmice, purple (or maybe house) finches, juncos (ours seem to be much darker than your photo shows) & of course, zillions of sparrows. So maybe we can now separate out those pine siskins. Thanks again!

A quick note on the subject of butterflies: if you haven’t seen it yet, you should, & I would say ASAP.  The Library has, in their 1st display case on right as you go in the front, a fantastic display of tropical butterflies! The story Tom & I got from a couple of the librarians is that these display trays they have were seized by customs authorities for some malfeasance; & that customs has the option, instead of destroying the stuff, to “lend” it to educational, nonprofit, etc. institutions. I would suspect they will not be on display for long, & probably the fluorescent overhead lights would in any case be detrimental to the magnificent colors.

Best wishes & here’s to an EARLY spring! Ann (& Tom) Byers Western Ave., Gloucester

From Sally on the South Shore – Hi Kim — I just heard yesterday for squirrrel proof feeders, you hang a SLINKY at the top!   Remember them?   I guess a toy store would be the place to look.   I am going to get 2 and can’t wait to see if it works.   Love your column.   Sally Goodrich

Hi Sally, let me know if slinkies do the trick!

Pine Siskin ~ Carduelis pinus

Pine Siskin ~ Carduelis pinusPine Siskin ~ Carduelis pinus

We certainly weren’t expecting to see and hear a new-to-our garden species of birds flocking to the Nyjer seed feeder on a frigid mid-January day. American Goldfinch in size, the richly mottled plumage resembled something closer to a sparrow. Their delightful birdsong was new and fresh to my ears and sweetly cheering. Currently in residence is a flock of House Sparrows, with several Song and Savannah Sparrows tagging along, but I had no success with identifying this new entourage when thumbing through the sparrow section of Audubon’s books. Returning to the goldfinch pages, Pine Siskins are closely related to American Goldfinches (the two species comprise the subgenus Spinus), and information was readily available, once on the right track.

To be sure, I emailed a snapshot to Chris Leahy at Mass Audubon and he confirmed that this was indeed a flock of Pine Siskins and that they are having an “irruptive” year. In ecological terms, irrupt is defined as “to increase rapidly and irregularly in number.”

Pine Siskins are “classic,” or true finches—small to moderately large, with twelve tail feathers and nine primary feathers, and strong conical shaped beaks designed to both penetrate the hard external shells of seeds and delicately extract a morsel of food. Members of the genus Carduelis sensu lato feed their young on a highly nutritious and easily digested diet of partially regurgitated, milky cereal-like blend of seeds.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Passeriformes

Family: Fringillidae

Genus: Carduelis

(Sub) Genus: Spinus

Species: pinus (Pine Siskin)

Species: tristis (American Goldfinch)

Pine Siskins are primarily a northern species, whose irruptive winter activity in the United States occurs in years when seed crops have failed in the boreal forests. Ornithologists believe the severity of winter weather in northern parts of the siskins’ range, as well as factors not completely understood, also contribute to their irruptive cycles. The siskins’ principal foods are the seeds of alder, cedar, birch, hemlock, and a variety of conifers. Occasionally, large flocks will appear as far south as Florida. Protecting coniferous forests will help protect the Pine Siskins.

Nimbly dangling upside down and every which way to feed, battling for a place at the feeder, and seemingly unafraid of my approach with camera in hand, the gregarious Pine Siskins are a fascinating species to observe. I am so glad I took a few snapshots when I did. Today it is snowing, again, and the temperatures are hovering around freezing. Perhaps they will stay (we keep the Nyjer seed feeder well stocked) or perhaps they will continue migrating further south.

Pine Siskins typically breed in coniferous forests. Although monogamous, they nest in both isolated pairs and loose colonies, and pairs may visit one another’s nests. The female constructs the nest on a horizontal branch of a conifer, well hidden and well away from the trunk.The nest resembles a large shallow basket, is watertight, and built of twigs, grass, rootlets, strips of bark, lichen, and leaves, and lined with moss, plant down, feathers, and hair. The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks, rarely leaving the nest. The male brings her food while she incubates and for the first few days after the young hatch. The fledglings leave the nest in approximately two weeks. The male and female continue to feed the young for several more weeks.

Because Pine Siskins forage in flocks and nest in loose colonies, they are particularly susceptible to salmonella. It is important to keep Nyjer seed feeders (all bird feeders) scrupulously clean. Scrub inside and out weekly with a solution of vinegar and water.

American Goldfinches display a dramatic example of sexual dichromatism in their plumage; during breeding season the males molt to brilliant cadmium yellow while the females maintain their olive hue year round. Pine Siskins show a more subtle form of sexual dichromatism. The male is typically identified by yellow patches in the wings and tail feathers. The female shows much less yellow. Sexual dichromatism is the systematic difference in color form between male and female in the same species (Greek, di meaning two, and chromatic relating to color). The yellow color of the pine siskins is not always clearly visible when perching and they are often mistaken for sparrows, with their similar brown, heavily streaked underparts.

Friday is my well-guarded, sacred day to paint, and I am currently finishing my illustrated book about butterflies. If I can’t manage to squeeze in any other time during the week to paint, at least I know I will have my Friday. My painting area is arranged beneath a northeast- facing window, ideal light for painting flora and fauna as the light coming through the left side evenly illuminates the subject placed on the table. Several of the bird feeders hang a mere ten feet from the window and are a wonderful source of distracting entertainment. Today at the bird feeders we observed the flock of Pine Siskins, a Dark-eyed Junco and his Song Sparrow friend (an oddly matched pair who always appear to come and go together), American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, Harrier Hawk, a pair of Northern Cardinals, one Carolina Wren, and the ubiquitous House Sparrows. A Northern Mockingbird, lately joined by an American Robin, comes daily to the winterberry and hollies, helping themselves to only a few berries, and then departing. The days are growing longer; we’re half past January, we only have February to get through, and soon we will be welcoming spring. I am looking forward to black earth revealed, new notes of fresh scents, and the chorus of courting songbirds.