top of page

Pine Siskins! Screaming Banshees from the North [Part 1 - Historical Info] - Oct 2020

Pine Siskins, Central Park (Pinetum), 18 October 2020 by Deborah Allen

21 October 2020

Bird Notes: Weather looks great for the coming weekend: just watch out for cooler than average temperature for Sunday (high in the 50s) - but this change in the weather will bring migrants to Central Park. On Monday there might be rain in the morning, so make sure to check the main (landing) page of this web site to see if we have canceled the bird walk.

Herein we profile the natural history of the Pine Siskin (1888-1950), an irruptive, nomadic passerine we see in significant number every 5-10 years in our area - though we last saw them in autumn 2018. Siskins are not "showy" birds such as Painted Buntings - instead they are "idea" birds: What brings them south at longer intervals than the bi-annual Red-breasted Nuthatch? Are siskins primarily coming from our north, or do some come from the far northwest (British Columbia/Alberta) as Crossbills are known to travel? Will some stay to breed locally? Why are these wild birds so tame/calm around humans? In the next several weeks we will devote a second Newsletter with a more scientific approach with articles from 1950 to the present: relative number of birds counted on migration in our area; peak migration times; and even rare color forms of the Pine Siskin to look such as the green morph Pine Siskin:

In this week's Historical Notes we include 1888-1950 natural history observations about the Pine Siskin in the NYC-LI-tristate area - and sometimes beyond. We present (a) an 1888 discussion of the tameness of the Pine Siskin; (b) the 1903 Central Park occurrence of Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks in October-November; (c) Staten Island Winter 1907 Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches; (d) the late January 1909 occurrence of Pine Siskins and Redpolls in Prospect Park, Brooklyn; (e) the 1910-1911 appearance of Pine Siskins, Redpolls and a Migrant [Loggerhead] Shrike in Central Park/northern Manhattan; (f) the March 1912 occurrence of Pine Siskins in New Jersey; (g) the November 1925 landing of a Pine Siskin on a ship 50 miles off the coast of Massachusetts; (h) four short articles (1926-1949) that illustrate (1) the tameness of Pine Siskins; (2) their ability to feed at night in cold climates; (3) their fondness for road salt; and (4) how a flock of these little banshees can wipe out a vegetable garden.

female Red-breasted Nuthatch (above), Central Park, 18 October 2020 by Deborah Allen.

Magnolia Warbler (hatch-year) in Central Park (Tupelo Field) on 18 Oct. 2020 by D. Allen


Bird Walks for late October

All Walks @ $10/person - All walks in Central Park

1. Friday, 23 October at 8:30am - Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue. Walk down the front (main) steps and straight ahead by 150 feet to the area between the men's room (on the right/north) and ladies' room (left/south) $10

2. Saturday, 24 October at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

3. Sunday, 26 October at 7:30am and again at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive $10

4. Monday, 27 October at 8:30am - Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic) at 72nd St. and Central Park West $10

If you do the 7:30am walk you can do the second (9:30am walk) for free. You get two for one. Weekend walks will continue through August and into December. Monday walks at 8:30am begin on Labor Day, 7 September and will continue through the end of October. Friday morning walks start 25 September and through October at least. What are you waiting for?

Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions:

Green Heron (hatch-year); Turtle Cove, Pelham Bay Park (The Bronx); 15 October 2020 Deborah Allen

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is ( If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) near the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total) - though the Boathouse is closed right now and will re-open in April 2021 according to the owners. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we aim to please.

Belted Kingfisher (female) Turtle Cove, Pelham Bay Park (The Bronx); 15 October 2020

Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Friday, 16 October 2020 (Conservatory Garden at 8:30am): was a total wash-out. It rained heavily all day so we had a chance to stay home and catch up on work. Thank Goodness..

Deborah's List of Birds for Friday, 16 October: No Bird Walk - RAIN today!

Sat-Sunday, 17-18 October 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am): Please note: the bathrooms at the Boathouse are NOT open. However, we do pass two other sets of bathrooms on the walk. Saturday, 17 October: 12 warbler species today - but today will have been our last 10+ warbler species day for the rest of the autumn. Our best species were a male Hooded Warbler (Maintenance Field) and two Cape May Warblers (Siberian Elm trees!). Other highlights included a lot of Eastern Towhees; a late Red-eyed Vireo (plus a few Blue-headed Vireos); and a Belted Kingfisher. On 18 October (Sunday) we had 6 warbler species including two Pine Warblers. A flyover Common Raven was good, but all of us will remember the big flock of Pine Siskins that descended upon our group in the Pinetum...the tape brought them in. They sat in pine trees just a few feet away feeding on pine seeds - see Deborah's photo above along with the Red-breasted Nuthatch from the same area. The two Purple Finches at eye-level in the Pinetum were good as well (ditto tape).

Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday, 17 October:

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 18 October:

Finally, Monday, 19 October - on the run birding with a lot of fun people, and 20 or so high-school students. For the latter, a lot of birds was better than any rare bird, so the group of 10+ Ruby-crowned Kinglet (and a male Black-throated Blue Warbler) low in one Hackberry tree on the south side of Strawberry Fields (thanks tape!) was better than the lone Pine Siskin we called in (tape) at the Ladies Pavilion on the west side of the lake.

Deborah's List of Birds for Monday, 19 October:

Pine Siskin, Central Park (Pinetum), 18 October 2020 by Deborah Allen




Tameness of the Pine Siskin. On 29 April 1888, while walking near Oak Hill in Newton, Mass., I noticed two Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), about a heap of hops by the roadside. One of them flew away at my approach, but the other remained there feeding, and, though perfectly able-bodied and in good condition, was remarkably tame. I stood watching him some time. After a while I reached out and stroked him, and finally succeeded in catching him in one hand. When I let him go, he flew off to some distance. Before I caught him, he went and perched in a bush near by and apparently went to sleep, putting his head over his left wing under the scapulary feathers, so that it was completely hidden. When I approached too near, he would take his head out and look at me and then put it back again when I drew back. The ground about there was sprinkled with droppings, showing that the birds had probably been there for some time. Was this bird affected by the hops, or is there any other explanation of his curious conduct? The hops were to be used as dressing for a field of grass.

FRANCIS H. ALLEN, West Roxbury, Mass.


Notes from in and near New York [1903].

Pine Siskin. 11 October 1903, I saw one Siskin feeding with several other species of its family, in Central Park, on the wall of the smaller reservoir.

Hairy Woodpecker. A male and a female spent this past winter in the Ramble, Central Park, and they or others have been seen in the north end woods. This is the first time in the four years I have been in New York that I have known this species to winter here.

Pine Grosbeak. I was shown two, in gray plumage, in Central Park, 12 November 1903, and had excellent views before they flew. About three minutes later I found three (different?) individuals in the same place, also gray. At Nordhoff, Bergen County, N. J., on January 9, I saw three Grosbeaks, two of them splendid adult males.

Wilson's Warbler. I saw one in Central Park, on October 31, 1903. My dates for this and the next species were each a month later than those given in the 'Handbook.'

Charles H. Rogers, New York City.


Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pine Finches [Pine Siskin] on Staten Island, N. Y [1907]. In this magazine for December, 1906, Mr. Dutcher described a remarkable migration of Red-breasted Nuthatches over Fire Island Beach, N. Y. While no such flight was noticed on Staten Island, still these birds were unusually abundant throughout the fall of 1906, the first being seen about September 1, and the last remaining till late in the autumn. Pine Finches, too, were present in for large numbers during the winter of 1906-7 than in the two preceding. They were most numerous on the beach on the south side of the island, where they fed on the ground and in the goldenrods. Singularly enough, both birds were also common on Staten Island during the season of 1903-4, when the Nuthatches were observed from September till November, and a few the following spring, and the Pine Finches were even more numerous in the central part of the island than during the past winter.

JAMES CHAPIN, New Brighton, Staten Island, N.Y.


Acanthis linaria. REDPOLL. [1909]. It may be worthy of note that Redpolls occurred again on Long Island this winter, although, apparently, less abundantly than last. Though several were seen by others, but a single individual came under my direct observation. It was seen feeding on the ground, among a number of Pine Siskins in Prospect Park on 30 January 1909.

William C. Braislin, M.D., Brooklyn, NY.

Pine Siskin, Turtle Cove, Pelham Bay Park (The Bronx), 19 October 2020; Deborah Allen


George E. Hix

Pine Siskins. On 17 May 1911, a flock of six were seen in Central Park. This is the latest they have ever been seen in the Park. In fact the Pine Siskin is not often seen there at any time.

Redpoll. This species was very abundant in the northern part of the city during the past winter (1910-11). They first appeared toward the end of December and remained until March. They first showed a preference for the sweet-gum trees, in which they fed with Siskins and Goldfinches. Toward the end of their stay they were found mostly in white birches. As many as 300 were seen in one flock.

Migrant Shrike. A fine adult bird was seen in Central Park on September 15, 1910. It was perched upon a fence, surrounding one of the reservoirs, and was eating something which was too far gone to distinguish what it was. This is the only bird of this species recorded from the Park.

Pine Siskin, Muscota Marsh, Inwood Hill Park (Manhattan), 15 October 2020; D. Allen

Pine Siskin in Trenton, N. J. [1912] On Sunday, March 31, while exploring an old field near the edge of the waterpower, which runs through a section of the city, the writer was agreeably surprised to observe six Pine Siskins making a repast on the seeds of weeds. On several previous visits to this same field, flocks of the American Goldfinch were seen, and it was in quest of this bird that my visit on the morning of the 31st was made. With a feeling of pleasure more vivid than might be aroused by many a songster in May, I made a note of this irregular individual in my field-book. It has been some time since this little bird of the North has paid us a passing call.

William M. Palmer, Trenton, N. J.


Pine Siskin fifty miles out at Sea. On 7 November 1925, a Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) flew on board the Isthmian Line Steamship "Steel Seafarer" when about fifty miles east of Nantucket. It settled on the foremast and several times when I approached it, the bird flew off, circled around the ship and then came back. It did not seem at all tired. It

stayed on board until within a few miles of Boston harbor when it flew off, headed for shore. There was only a light wind blowing that day, hardly enough to blow a bird 50 miles out to Sea.

HERBERT FRIEDMANN, 32 Garden Place, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Pine Siskin, New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), 12 November 2008

Pine Siskins 1926. In a short time the birds [Pine Siskins] came to regard me as their friend, and in the days that followed grew to be exceedingly sociable and to lose every vestige of fear. Whenever I would appear at the window, or step outside the door, down they would come and, settling upon my head, shoulders, and arms, would peer anxiously about for the food that they had learned to know I held concealed from them in a box, dish, or other receptacle. The moment I removed the cover or exposed the food, they would make a dash for it and the usual scrapping program would be on. Nor was it at all necessary for me to go outside the door. In a short time the siskins discovered this opening [in a window pane], and it was only necessary for me to draw the slide when one after another would come right into my kitchen, and soon one or more of them would be perched on my head or shoulder, or hopping around on the desk where I was writing, looking for the handful of seeds that they all knew was forthcoming. Now and then some members of the flock would elect to spend the night in the warm room, sleeping on the clothes-line, stretched across the room a little below the ceiling. On such occasions they seemed to be without fear and totally oblivious to people moving about the room, often within a few inches of them, turning on or snapping off electric lights."

E.R. Davis


Pine Siskins 1929. "None of us who have vegetable gardens has been spared by the siskins. Our own case is the most extreme, as we have attracted the species by means of amazingly effective salt and clay baits for banding purposes. It is now impossible to raise most vegetables except under wire. In rather long experience of gardens and their pests, we have seen nothing to rival the instantaneous devastation which an unobtrusive flock of siskins can inflict, often before their presence in a garden has been noticed. Not once, but season after season, and time after time within the same season, we have seen long rows of seedling beets, chard, lettuce, radishes, and onions, cut neatly to the ground. Peas and cole crops, as far as we know, are not taken, but we hear of the destruction of turnips."

T. and E. McCabe (British Columbia)


Pine Siskins 1941. In the first half of March 1941, between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, N.Y., the road had been treated with a mixture of sand and calcium chloride. G. M. Meade (1942) quotes an observer as follows: "For several days great numbers of White-winged Crossbills and small numbers of Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins settled on the road to eat the salt. The roadbed was covered with them and it was almost impossible to scare them away even by using the horn. They appeared to be too sick to rise and even though motorists drove slowly they were killed in great numbers. The surface of the snow-covered road was actually reddened by the blood and feathers of the birds. My estimate is that there were at least a thousand birds killed."

AC Bent


Feeding at Night by Wintering Pine Siskins [1945]. With the exception of the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) in urban environments, there are few documented examples of wild passerine birds feeding during hours of darkness. However, at 0230 on 24 December 1948, with ambient temperature of -30C, I observed 3 Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) feeding at a baited area on a country road at Malartic Lake, Quebec (48ø 15'N, 78ø 10'W).

During the preceding day, a flock of 10-12 Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls (Carduelis

flammea) had been observed feeding at a patch of grit exposed by a passing snowplow. The area was subsequently baited with commercial bird seed for photographic purposes. During the night, the patch was partially illuminated by a floodlight from an adjacent cottage. I was alerted to the presence of the birds by a call note, and investigated, finding 3 Pine Siskins feeding at the bait within the illuminated area. The birds were observed for approximately 5s, when one other bird (siskin?) entered the beam from the dark side of the patch. The four birds immediately flushed and were not seen during the next 10 min.

Since foraging bouts of birds are necessarily frequent during cold weather, it is likely that these Pine Siskins used the familiar food source to satisfy the elevated energetic requirements associated with thermoregulation during this cold night. As such, this observation of nocturnal feeding represents an extreme example of foraging opportunism by winter birds.

David R. C. PRESCOTT, Department of Zoology, University of Guelph, Canada.


Pine Siskins 1949. Salt in some form is a real desideratum of siskins. "At this time, the birds were encountered chiefly on the highway where they assembled in dense flocks, eating gravel mixed with chloride. Soon after sun-up they began to appear in these places with their numbers reaching a peak around midday, followed by a slow decline until, just before sunset, the last flock flew away to roost. Many of these birds apparently traveled considerable distances to these cherished feeding-places; I saw birds winging their way to and from the highway from the woods at least a mile away. When disturbed, the birds swung off the road as of one accord, amid excited twitter, to alight in the trees alongside and there continue their feeding on the seeds of the evergreens, or on the buds of the white birches and aspen trees, with the siskins showing particular liking for the seeds of the alder-bushes. The siskins were a gregarious lot, associating freely with all the other finches, especially with the Goldfinches and the Red Crossbills."

Louise de Kiriline Lawrence

Pine Siskin New York Botanical Garden (The Bronx), 12 November 2008

Pine Siskins 1896-1946. "Some years are marked by exceptional flights of these birds [Pine Siskins] southward. In 1896, enormous flocks were found in Louisiana, South Carolina, Missouri, and Illinois. Again in the year 1907, notable for its cold spring, flocks were observed in Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri. This year they nested in Nebraska. The season of 1922-23 was characterized by an abundant crop of beech nuts and wild fruits, and again the siskins appeared in large numbers in Alabama, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Nebraska. They were conspicuous by their absence from Yosemite National Park, California, in the fall of 1923. In 1925, they were seen in Kentucky and Michigan, and they nested in North Dakota and also at Ithaca, New York. There were abundant spruce, fir, and hemlock seeds in the Great Smokies of Tennessee in 1937. Siskins, usually rare in Tennessee, appeared in thousands during November. In other years, too, there were great flights at one place or another, but in these particular years the movement was most marked."

Dorothy Mierow (1946)


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Chestnut-tailed Minla in Nepal (Thoolakharka) 14 November 2014


bottom of page