I used to describe February as fickle but this year it has instead been ferocious February as a succession of storms careering in from the Atlantic have left devastating floods in their wake which have ruined many lives and businesses. And now they sign off with flurries of snow which thank goodness have not settled markedly at lower levels. So much for impending spring albeit ironically, we have daffodils bursting into flower to join the snowdrops! And now it is said that more inclement weather is on the way!
Perhaps as a consequence of these storms, there has been much activity at my bird-table of late, with usual suspects in plentiful supply. Chaffinches and sparrows of the house variety dominate in numbers whilst a pair of collared doves are also regular attendees. There is also that added bit of spice which hints further at forthcoming spring with definite signs among the cock birds especially, that the sap is beginning to rise. Lengthening hours of daylight are now an increasing influence.
There has been the sudden arrival of siskins on cue, as they are virtually every February, to add a further variety to the mix and, as always, they bring that extra dimension of feistiness to the proceedings. There have been a few testy encounters between them and the goldfinches, which surely tells us that, despite the persistence of bad weather conditions, spring is inexorably moving towards us. The odd crow and a pair of magpies together with the usual plethora of blackbirds, the inevitable robin and an occasional wren make for an interesting roll-call.
There are few of the visiting hordes more blatantly spirited than the goldfinches which concentrate on the sunflower hearts and resist the advances of the much larger chaffinches, greenfinches and sparrows at the feeder, their little red faces seemingly even redder when disputes arise. The arrival of those siskins has also added to the heightened atmosphere. Small is both beautiful and challenging and the siskins are certainly a match for most of the other diners, small or not. They are just about as aggressive as the goldfinches which, also being on the small size, are roughly the same size.
The siskin is one of the few birds that has prospered in recent times, largely due to the increased planting of conifers in many parts of Britain. And once it found that gardens had much to offer in the way of bird food, they soon became regular garden visitors. Like the goldfinches, they seem to like sunflower hearts and once one of them has established a place at the feeder, other birds find them hard enough to be dislodged. Between them, the goldfinches and the siskins are now dominating the sunflower hearts.
The siskin male is an attractive wee bird, adorned with a little black cap, liberally splashed with yellow and green and with a prominent black bib. Its wings are streaked and this is an agile bird, full of nimble tricks. The female is a little plainer, streaked but also tinged with yellow. Siskins are sociable birds and in the cock birds those with a large bib seem to be dominant. Not only does the size of the male bird’s black bib indicate a superiority but scientists have also discovered that birds with a longer yellow wing-bar are actually better foragers. Thus, if you are a female siskin, what you’re looking for is a mate with a large black bib and a longer than usual yellow wing-bar!
One unusual trait becomes obvious when males are seen feeding other males. These are subordinate birds down the pecking order, feeding their superiors. As the breeding season progresses you may see more male birds ‘doffing their forelocks’ to senior and dominant males which actually demand the attention of their ‘minions’ and a constant supply of food! Life for senior members of the tribe therefore seems particularly relaxed!
When, during the nineteenth century, cage birds were all the rage I’m afraid siskins were often held in captivity, esteemed because of their attractive plumage but also for their sweet little song. Although there are still plenty of bird fanciers, there are now strict rules and laws which prevent the capture of wild birds. When siskins were popular cage birds they were often known as aberdavines, a name thought to derive from the bird’s preference for alder seeds. It is thought to translate roughly from the German as ‘alder finch’. Indeed, the appearance of siskins at my bird-table at this time of the year usually coincides with the reduction of alder seeds available elsewhere. Another similarity with goldfinches is their sheer athleticism when they are teasing out seeds. The narrow beak is an ideal tool with which to extract them. Siskins also feed on birch and pine seeds and almost always choose conifers as nesting sites.
The name siskin seems to find its origins in the German language. ‘Ziseke’ is the German interpretation of a siskin’s call, meaning ‘chirper’ or ‘whistler’. There is a strong population across Europe where of course, there are extensive coniferous forests but there is a completely separate population of identical birds in China and Japan. One feature of siskin life is the constant conversations between members of a flock. Like goldfinches there is a constant buzz as they move through the trees. In flight, they converse with a soft call, ‘tseu’. They also sometimes chatter like sparrows and the song may be described as a sizzling melody of fast notes and twitters interspersed with little buzzing interludes.
The annual arrival of siskins takes us another step towards spring. Yet the weather seems intent on us keeping us firmly in winter. The driving winds – this has been a very windy February – and the driving rain with interludes of hail and snow mean that the arrival of March does not obviously open the door to spring. And yet March’s entry is symbolic and as the days continue to lengthen, spring will at last take hold. We can perhaps look forward to the arrival of the first migrants albeit that odd reports of single swallows and occasional martins may very definitely seem premature. Any early migrants are unlikely to survive the wintry blasts!
Despite the succession of storms, days are in fact slowly lengthening and there are, between the frequent showers, certain signs of forthcoming spring especially in the shape of a recently seen vibrant pussy willow and of course also through the arrival of the siskins during their annual translocation, plus daffodils bursting into flower, blackbirds in full song, sawing great tits and a few bursts of music from cock robin promise much. The chorus is growing. As we welcome St David’s Day on Sunday, I’ll be looking at the local rookery to see if tradition holds true and the rooks, in fact, make their return to their high-rise village. At present however, I must confess that as global warming asserts its influence, tradition seems to count for nothing!