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Siskin
Photo credit: John Harding/BTO

Siskins are lively little birds, smaller than greenfinches and with a distinctive forked tail and long narrow bill. During breeding season they can be spotted in the tops of trees mainly in Scotland and Wales, while in the winter they are seen widely over England as Scandinavian siskins join the British breeding population and they turn to gardens to provide food.

However, during some winters garden bird watchers see incredibly low numbers of siskins. So why is that and should we be concerned?

It may, in fact, not be bad news at all. Previous British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) studies have shown a correlation between siskins using supplementary food in gardens and years when the Sitka Spruce has poor crops. The Sitka Spruce is a non-native conifer introduced to Britain from North West America in 1831. It is one of the most widely planted conifers in the UK, with its wood used for high quality timber and paper.

In years when there are exceptional numbers of seeds of the Sitka Spruce siskins are able to rely on these for their food sources rather than needing to venture into gardens.

BTO Garden Birdwatch data shows that the number of siskins seen in gardens usually increases toward the end of the year as the amount of natural food sources diminish and wet weather causes Sitka Spruce cones to close. Bumper crops of Sitka Spruce seeds combined with relatively mild winters could explain why siskins go missing from British gardens some years.

But as the weather gets colder siskins usually return to British gardens if they are unable to survive the winter on the seeds of the Sitka Spruce alone.

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