A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


A fairly common bird in Sonoma County, but often missed because the small flocks Siskins form usually feed quietly, high up in trees, and, in summer, Siskins tend to stay at higher elevations. Pine Siskin tends to prefer moister coastal woodlands to drier interior areas. More often seen in the winter months and especially in irruptive years--years when larger than usual numbers show up (such as 2012/2013)--near human habitation. Thus, present in large numbers in some years, less common in others. When present, often visits feeders where it is a notably scrappy little bird, muscling out competitors.

A close relative of the three goldfinches (American, Lesser, and Lawrence's), but looks rather different from those birds. Covered almost completely with fine, dark streaking. Note the comparatively short, notched tail; sharp, pointed bill (much finer and pointy than the bill of any of its relatives); and proportionately small head. Yellow along the outer edge of the wing and at the base of the tail is distinctive, if you can get a good look, but the yellow is variable (usually less prominent in females and juveniles) and often difficult to see in the field (most conspicuous in flight).

May be confused with female House Finch at a distance or by birders inexperienced with these species, but Pine Siskin and the female finch are easy to tell apart once you've seen both. The yellow in the wings of the Pine Siskin is a giveaway, if you can see it, but the bill should always distinguish the two species. Also, the streaking is quite different--fine, dark, and crisp on Pine Siskin, broader, more diffuse and paler on female House Finch. Also, Pine Siskin will be fairly clearly streaked on the back, unlike the House Finch. Siskin wings are darker relative to the streaked body. Tail is shorter and more clearly notched. Tends to fly in small flocks (4-6 birds or so) or in larger groups in the winter, sometimes associating with goldfinches and other species.

Note that older sources will list Pine Siskin in the genus Carduelis, as Carduelis pinus.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 125

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 442

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 178

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 460

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 524

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 674-675

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 634

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 361

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 475

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 370

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 251

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 13, 420

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 276-277

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 74

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 290

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 364

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 344

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 453

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 754

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 334

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Pine Siskin



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For Comparison: Female House Finch

Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

Pine Siskin

Santa Rosa, December 10, 2010

Pine Siskin, Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

Pine Siskin

Spinus pinus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 1, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County