The siskin

David Chapman / 03 December 2013

Only fifty years ago the siskin was a bird rarely seen at the garden bird table but at some point during the middle of the 20th century, these beautiful little finches began to show a liking for the red mesh bags of peanuts. Now, all across the country there is a chance that we might see one of these gems in our garden, particularly during winter.

The female siskin might be confused with a female greenfinch but the siskin is much smaller, about the size of a blue tit, and the female is quite streaky unlike the female greenfinch. The male siskin is one of our most beautiful garden birds with plumage dominated by yellow contrasting with a green back and black head.

The siskin's fine beak is designed for eating small seeds. Siskins eat the seed of spruce, pine and birch but their favourite is alder and because alder trees are most common on damp ground this is where siskins are most likely to be spotted, often in quite large flocks. As well as coming to gardens to eat peanuts they also enjoy niger seed, which is a favourite of another fine-billed finch, the goldfinch.

As recently as 40 years ago the siskin was regarded as a breeding bird of Scotland with some also found in coniferous plantations of north and west England and Wales but since then its breeding population has increased markedly to the extent that it is now recorded in many gardens across the UK even during summer. 

Estimates suggest that the population of siskins in Britain has increased from about 40,000 pairs in the early 1970s to almost half a million breeding pairs now. It is thought that this increase is due in part to the maturing coniferous plantations around the country as well as the supply of niger seed and peanuts in our gardens.

In autumn, our population of siskins is boosted by migrants from eastern Europe trying to avoid the worst of the winter cold. Numbers are greater in years when alder and spruce seeds on the continent are in short supply and, as their natural food supplies diminish through the winter, gradually more and more siskins make their way into our gardens to find food, so we should all be looking out for them over the next couple of months.

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