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The siskin: identifying, feeding habits and migration

David Chapman / 03 December 2013 ( 22 July 2020 )

Find out about the UK's growing population of siskins. Find out how to distinguish them from greenfinches, learn what they eat and about their migration patterns.

Siskin

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 peanuts we regularly put out in our gardens. Now, all across the country there is a chance that we might see one of these gems in our garden, particularly during winter.

Recognising siskins

Siskins are distinctive birds, particularly the male who has very bright yellow and black plumage. Indeed, 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 female's plumage is a much duller yellow and she does not have the solid black patch that a male has on his forehead.

Juvenile siskins can be hard to identify, as they lack the bright yellow plumage of the body and head of the adults. Juvenile siskins can look similar to juvenile goldfinches from certain angles, but young goldfinches are recognisable from the bright yellow bar on their wings.

Other British birds with yellow plumage include the yellowhammer, cirl bunting, wood warbler and yellow wagtail.

Greenfinch or siskin? How to distinguish between them

The female Eurasian siskin (Spinus spinus) 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.

What siskins eat

If you are wondering what to feed these birds, 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.

Siskin numbers in the UK

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.

Siskin migration

In autumn, the British 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 winter months.

Where do siskins nest?

Siskins usually nest in small cup-shaped nests high up in conifer trees, built from twigs, lichen and fine roots and lined with feathers.

Want to attract more garden birds to your garden? Why not try making your own fat balls to give them a tasty treat when they visit?

For more information on garden birds, visit our British garden birds section.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.