One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder holding Nyjer seeds. The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season. Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder and queue up in numbers to eat their fill.
This April, though, I was surprised to see a male Siskin feeding, my first in 30 years! Though they do like to feed on the seeds of riverside Alders and Birches this was still a great sighting in my riverside garden. Movements of Siskins are quite complex, something that can be worked out from the recoveries of birds which have been ringed. Scottish birds are thought to make up a significant proportion of the English wintering population, though some come from Europe as far afield as Norway.
Siskins were always scarce in this part of the country until the Forestry Commission started to plant conifer plantations in the Thames Valley. Gradually, the Scottish population then expanded southwards. Ironically, the trend is now for the authorities to remove conifers to restore broadleaf woodland, so it may well be that Siskins will become even rarer in future.
Siskins do have years when they are especially common even in Berkshire and, remarkably, our records go back over 150 years thanks to records made by a 16-year-old Eton boy named Alexander Clark Kennedy. He wrote the first ever book anywhere in the world containing photos of birds, and in it he stated that there were abundant flocks of Siskins in the years 1857/8 and 1866/7. You can see his book, and a Siskin, in the Eton College Natural History Museum!
The photo has been kindly provided by Brian Clews of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project.