Wednesday, January 23, 2008

23 January: Not quite an SBB*

Through the murk that has recently passed as daylight, I have seen a new visitor to the hanging peanut feeder (it's the feeder that hangs, not each individual peanut).

Peanuts have never been a real hit with our local birds, largely being ignored in favour of the pet shop's special mix containing some sort of dried up dead caterpillar or worm thing. (You may be able to tell that insects are not my specialist field of knowledge.) One summer a peanut feeder hanging from a pole on the lawn was popular with fledgling starlings, who were most entertaining, and even with a pair of magpies and one of their youngsters.

So it was with some surprise that I saw a few times this small unfamiliar bird clinging to the mesh and pecking away. But what was it? Not a blue or coal tit, not a finch, wren, robin, or dunnock, and definitely not a blackbird. The robin darts to a hanging seed feeder, snatches a morsel, and dashes for cover. The dunnocks, supposedly ground-feeders, have seen this, and have eventually copied, though they are not at ease with the procedure, and generally knock some bits to the ground and eat them there. This creature hangs there for perhaps as much as five minutes, alternately pecking then checking all round, pecking and checking.

Smaller than a dunnock, with a beak finer than a finch, paleish in colour, with some streaks on the sides and underneath, it had a definite greeny-yellow cast to its feathers, and a suggestion of a yellowish eye-stripe. Who lives in a plumage like this?

Might it be a chiff-chaff - only they aren't streaky, and shouldn't be here in winter. Perhaps a siskin? But the picture in the bird ID book in the kitchen shows a boldly marked bird with strong black and yellow, and goes on about black legs. Well you can't see the legs when it's on the far side of the feeder, nor its back and wings. And this body isn't splashy, it's subtle, and more hinting.

Oh, hang on, that picture is, of course, of the male bird in his breeding plumage - half the birds of any variety are not going to be male, are they? In the summer, there's juveniles as well - they can be really difficult to identify too. But the illustrations are always the male, in breeding plumage. The background may show a small female and/or juveniles, or they get a mention in the caption - "female duller" or "juveniles without..". But if you go to a large and expensive reference book (in the room we like to call the study), on page 1565 of Volume 2 you find a decent picture of a female siskin. And the text confirms that, though mainly birds of conifer woods, they also like birch and alder (plenty of them around here), and may visit gardens to eat peanuts.


*small brown bird

1 comment:

KAZ said...

Whilst out walking today I admired the beautiful plumage of the male Mallard - but in summer he goes all brown and is indistinguishable from the female. It's probably to calm him down a bit and give her some peace.