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Pine siskins are making a strong showing in our area this winter, especially at thistle feeders. Keith Corliss

Good winter for siskins plus a chance to count them

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I'm not exactly sure of Ron Pittaway's background other than he's from Ontario and he is (apparently) a field ornithologist. What I am sure about is his forecasting skills. For the past several years Pittaway has put out a prognostication for the upcoming winter by compiling data from a number of sources then computing a best-guess estimate. Simply called the Winter Finch Forecast, Pittaway's well-researched opinion has become much anticipated among dwellers of northern latitudes and beyond.

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With "winter finches," Pittaway addresses eight boreal forest species: pine grosbeak, purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill, common redpoll, hoary redpoll, pine siskin, and evening grosbeak. Only three of these can we in the Red River Valley reasonably expect to see in any given winter: purple finch, common redpoll and pine siskin. The rest are specific to small areas of the state with proper habitat, or just plain long shots.

This fall's forecast was released in September. Under the pine siskin heading, Pittaway wrote, "A conifer seed specialist in winter, most pine siskins should leave the province this fall because the spruce cone crop is poor in the boreal forest."

It didn't take long for reports of pine siskins to heat up all over the northern U.S. this fall, including here. This is the highest number of siskins we've seen locally for a good number of years. Pittaway was dead right on this one.

The pine siskin (Carduelis pinus), is a small mostly brownish finch about the size of a goldfinch with heavy streaking all over giving it a near zebra like appearance. Its bill is small but very pointed for a finch. The only color you can associate with a siskin is yellow and even that can be difficult to discern because it's buried in its wing and tail linings.

While this is a bird associated with conifers, it is considered the most common winter finch and is often found far from cone trees. What you will find it on is thistle, both natural and those contained in artificial feeders. And when the bird shows up, it's hardly ever alone. Pine siskin is a species known for its gregariousness, with flocks numbering in the 100s being seen at North Dakota feeders.

Following winters with large irruptions, siskins often stick around and nest well south of their usual boreal range. In fact, several years ago I had a pair nest in my back yard spruce tree where they raised a brood of four young.

Of all the species one encounters, this one may be the tamest. It will stay at a feeding perch while all but ignoring nearby human activity. I'm sure a patient person could get them to feed out of a hand.

In case you don't have a thistle feeder out back, you may still be able to find them by their distinctive call. It's a drawn-out raspy "zreeeeet" which rises in inflection, similar to someone slowly asking a question.

Pittaway has hit the mark on white-winged crossbills too, as these birds are being seen across a wide swath of the country. I'm still waiting for it to show up in Cass County in decent numbers. Unfortunately, this species feeds nearly exclusively on conifer seeds. A quick glance around should tell you we don't have much of those around here. What spruces we have are showing a very poor cone crop this year, however, so I'm not holding my breath.

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For those interested in taking part in the Christmas Bird Count this year the date for the Fargo-Moorhead version is December 20. There are a couple ways to approach this. One is to call the count director, Bob O'Connor (218) 236-9911, and volunteer your birding skills. If you choose to go this route be prepared with binoculars and warm clothing. You will be with a group traveling by car with some walking.

The other option is to merely watch your feeders that day and report what species you saw and how many (maximum number at one time so as not to recount individuals). Be mindful of the boundary, however. It was established decades ago and does not change. Basically the area includes all of Harwood and West Fargo north of I-94. Folks in Mapleton and Horace are out of luck.

To call in your list that day, use O'Connor's work phone (701) 231-7175. Leave your name, address, phone number and your bird report listing every species and their corresponding number on voice mail.

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