The Mexican Siskin,Carduelis magellanicus,
When I was a mere child and my eyes were far larger than the contents of my wallet I was once pouring over some US-type finch publication when I spied a picture of this magnificent finch. I believe they referred to it as the Black-headed siskin. So I set about finding some in Australia only to be shattered at the price of around $1500-$2000 a pair which was around twice that for the Red-hooded siskin, C.cucullata at the time! Do you realise how many Zebra finches that amounted to way back then!!
Thus ended my aspirations to breed siskins, well at least for the short term at any rate!
Several years later I heard of some in Tassy and invited myself over for a look and was well and truly re-hooked! Since that time large numbers have become available and I have been fortunate enough to have been able to breed a goodly number myself and have never been without them since acquiring my first pair.
I suppose I’d better introduce the object of my affection in a proper manner and wade headlong into the naming debate. In Oz they are commonly called the Mexican siskin or simply referred to as ‘Mexicans’ but they are known elsewhere as Black-headed goldfinches, Hooded siskins, Yellow siskins, Black-headed siskins or Black-headed Yellow siskins – and I probably missed a few names too!
Odd that we call them Mexicans here as they occur nowhere near Mexico in
reality!! Maybe an expatriate Mexican owned the first pairs in Australia!
I only recently realised what a can of worms I had opened when I was queried on the name that I had given to these birds! It truly shows the importance of the Scientific Latin name in the nomenclature of the finches we have available to us.
To test my naming of this bird I trialled a few names amongst friends and found that everybody recognised it as a Mexican siskin, most knew it as the Black-headed Yellow siskin or simply the Yellow siskin, but when I mentioned Carduelis magellanicus I was told to speak English, stared at or told to pull my head in and stop being smart – how we suffer for the pursuit of science!
I also found a few references to a C. mexicanus, which one might have felt was another truer contender for the title ‘Mexican siskin’, but what it turned out they were referring to was the Mexican House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus. In fact where there were common names included they called Carduelis mexicanus the House Finch! A strange looking Siskin I must admit so I’ll stick with the taxonomy of Peter Clement!
Want another example? Ask people outside of Australia what a "Ruddy" is and I
imagine a lot of head scratching would ensue. However, mention Lagonosticta
senegala and everybody knows what you mean!! Well, they will when they look
it up at any rate regardless of their native language!!
Anyway, enough of this scientific banter! In Australia mention the Mexican or Yellow siskin and 98% of finch breeders will know what you are talking about. Or as my mate the wag stated "The big bugger that ain’t red!" A man of few words and obviously a budding taxonomist!
At the risk of offending a number of people I believe that the birds we have here are a mix of a large number of different closely related sub-species and races. Why? Well, the variation in hen birds for one thing where some are a green colour while others are grey, but here there are as many shades of grey and green as you can imagine and further some hens have a duller version of the males black hood obvious in their head colour – and this is in young birds not just older ones. Could this be the influence of blood from Carduelis notata where the hen of the species has quite a pronounced black head colouration – couldn’t help myself!!!
|Fig.1. Cock Siskin.||Fig.2. Hen Siskin.||Fig.3. Young Cock Siskin.|
The males have considerable variation in the amount of black that they have on their chests. In some the black extends right down the chest while in the majority the black is confined to the head and neck area. One has only to pick up a book that deals with the geographical distribution of the Siskin family to realise the potential overlap areas in the wild and what this would mean in terms of the birds available to the aviary trade. In fact most authors that write about this finch state that they form hybrids in the wild with a variety of related species – and not just other siskins.
|Fig.4. Hybrid Siskin Male.||Fig.5. Hybrid Siskin Male.|
Ok, Ok, I’ll leave the zoogeography to better educated zoologists than I and stick with the aviary dynamics! Just wanted you to be aware of the variation that exists in Australian Mexicans! Mind you the males that show a tinge of orange through their feathers are usually a hybrid with the Red-hooded siskin so beware!
The Mexican is around the same size as the common European goldfinch and has one advantage for us in colder climes in that they will not leave their chicks around eight days after they hatch as does the Red-hooded siskin.
Feeding is relatively simple and ours get Peppers Finch Breeders Mix supplemented with liberal amounts of fresh Niger (again from Col Pepper!) plus wild seed mix that contains small wild oats, maw, rye, phalaris and a multitude of other grassland ‘weed seeds’! This mix is favoured when they are breeding and one Mexican male will wait above the bowl each morning for me to fill it when he has a wife and young ‘uns to feed.
I have read and heard it said that "no Niger equals no young" but would have to disagree as some pairs seem addicted to it yet others have bred happily without it.
|Fig.6. A 'Couple' of Chicks.||Fig.7. Chick & Unhatched Egg.||Fig.8. Four's A Crowd!|
When young are in the nest the parents consume large quantities of both live
food and green food – in fact anything ‘green’ is relished! Our live food
consists of mealworms, maggots and fly pupae of which all are readily taken when
young are in the nest. Outside the breeding season they show little interest in
Green food is usually whatever is available at the time given the dry conditions that prevail here over our meagre summer! Lebanese cucumber is fed every day and Endive when obtainable. On this point these Siskins appear to relish every part of the Endive plant and will greedily tear Endive leaves to pieces, especially when feeding chicks, and if you allow some of the plants to go to seed they will likewise strip the seed heads and unopened pods – the result is the Endive is reduced to the appearance of a very bare stick in record time!
Grasses given are Green panic, Ehrharta erecta, Veldt oats, E.longifolia, Winter grass, Poa annua, Rye grass, Lolium sp., and a wide variety of milk thistle and Dandelion species – basically anything green with seeds in it! It should be mentioned here that breeding results with the Mexicans appear not to be linked to the feeding of large quantities of soft milk thistles as appears to be the case, at least in Tassie from what I’m told, for the Red-hooded siskin. When grass is scarce the birds are fed a quantity of Pepper’s Greens n’ Grains which consists of a large amount of Watergrass, Echinochloa crus-galli, plus a multitude of other dried green seeds.
|Fig.9. A Bird In The Hand??||Fig.10. Just Flying!||Fig.11. Endive Anyone??|
My birds start breeding around late November but the best results are from pairs nesting in January. For some reasons known only to them the pairs that breed early are very poor at raising their young. The hens will sit and hatch their eggs then neglect to feed the chicks but still sit tightly on them until the chicks are an amorphous mess in the bottom of the nest! Why they do this is beyond me but a few other breeders have recorded the same behaviour. Yet, the same pairs in early January will then rear 3-4 chicks with no problems and have done so for me over a number of seasons.
The nest is a tightly woven structure usually composed of cotton wool, coconut fibre, swamp grass, rabbit, dog, possum or cat fur, thistle seed heads and cotton lintus. The average nest is beautifully constructed and about the size of a matchbox and it is a rare sight indeed to see 3-5 fully fledged chicks jostling for a position on such a tiny structure! Oh, and if they should fall out simply put them back into the nest and all should be well as long as you are careful not to cause all of the chicks to abandon ship!
Three to five eggs are the normal clutch size and 2-3 chicks are usual for each nest although I have had several where only one chick is raised and others that have reared all five. The eggs tend to be white but some may have a few tiny brown and purple dots sparingly scattered at the larger end. An incubating hen is usually very loathe to leave the nest and, for this reason, I confine nest inspection to times when she is not sitting rather than forcing her to leave the nest. The first Mexicans I ever saw had been raised under canaries and, in order to check their nests, you would have to poke your finger under the hen and gently lift her from the nest!
Mine are run as a colony with 2 cocks to 5-6 hens. These males do not
(note failure to use the word ‘never’!) and I have ‘never’ observed them doing
so in earnest - bet they do five minutes after I publish this!! The only aggression has been to lower the wings and run along the
perch towards each other but invariably one or other of the males ‘backs off’
and its simply a quick shuffle of the feathers to restore dignity and within
five minutes they will both be feeding from the same bowl! If a new male was to
be added to the colony there might be a very different scenario but I have never
been dumb enough to test this hypothesis, especially not at breeding time! Not
so though for hens as I have often placed a hen back into the colony if her mate
fails to breed and within a short period she is usually sitting on eggs, as was
the case this season. The chasing by the males in this case was definitely NOT
directed at killing her!
However, as an aviculturist, I know better than to use the words ‘always and never’ in regards to anything avian! My birds have ‘never’ shown overt aggression but I have seen a trio where the male would have killed the hen had not my friend intervened and she will always have a Mohawk such was the severity of his attack. To give another example I had ‘never’ witnessed aggression amongst Golden Song Sparrows, Passer luteus, and ‘always’ found them to be annoying but not deadly until I ‘babysat’ a pair for someone. This pair systematically killed every young bird in the aviary when their own chicks were ready to leave the nest! Mind you the only youngster they didn’t manage to decapitate was a baby Mexican for, when they tried, the enraged father drove the offending Songie head first into the nearest wall, stood above it dancing from side to side and twittering with wings drooped daring it to try again! It didn’t!
Nesting sites are placed in the Tea-tree at around 1 metre from the ground and hens will not nest close together – in my birds! Whilst on a speaking engagement in Western Australia I was fortunate enough to be able to speak at length with John and Truis Alers, finch ‘legends in that state’, and here I saw a very unique nesting system that they used to great effect. It was a bunch of Tea-tree or Melaleuca wired together and hung from the roof of the aviary. By using these it was possible to separate nesting sites throughout the aviary rather than just having them all as one wall of brush. I constructed three of these and placed them in my Mexican aviary and they result was staggering. All of these ‘Alers clusters’ had Mexican nests in them after only 2 days and, at the time of writing, there are 2 lots of chicks being fed in them.
Once over the ‘chick squashing phase’ they should prove to be devoted parents as long as you try to vary their diet as much as possible with green food and the likes.
Two-three nests appears to be the norm for my siskins. I have not witnessed
any aggression on the part of adults towards youngsters but have heard several
reports where cock birds have started to harass young males once they began to
break their black hood colour. After breeding 22 one season I still did not see
any aggression amongst the young and adults. A little low level chasing but they
certainly did not actually come to blows, maybe there was too many in there for
them to concentrate on any one other male! Young from early nests do not appear
to interfere with any subsequent broods.
During most seasons there appears to be a tendency to breed far more hens than cocks. Although a very poor season in 2004 of seven chicks reared only one was a male!
|Fig.12. Youngster 'Blending In'!||Fig13. Dad, Wings Lowered Into Songies!!|
Apart from the already mentioned ‘chick squashing’ and the tendency for some
young hens to construct platform nests on occasions there appears to be few
problems with these robust finches. Both hens and cocks appear to breed far
better in their second year and young hens often go through a nest building
phase where they simply build nest after nest without actually bothering to lay.
Take heart as the same birds will ’probably’ be excellent parents ‘next season’
– heard that one before have we!
Mine are flown in a 10x5 metre aviary with other cup-nesters, namely Oriental greenfinches and Chaffinches, without mishap or hybrids I might add for over 12 years. However, I do not recommend housing them with the Red-hooded siskin or the Green singer as they will produce hybrids with both and, as Green singers appear to have no sense of humour towards anything yellow, fighting may/will/must occur. The hybrid with the Red-hooded siskin cock is smaller, tends to have an orange tinge to its plumage and is very definitely fertile but the only difference in the hens is their size and most tend to be the deeper grey of the pure Red-hooded siskin hen. If a cock from this cross is mated with a true hen Mexican the resultant young are extremely bright in colour and , I believe, another reason why there is so much variation in the colour of Australian Mexican siskins. I have seen a number of such F2 crosses in collections where the owner swears that he has a ‘different’ sub-species!
In the past I have lost young siskins to mosquito bites to the neck region
which can cause a fatal restriction to the airway.
Regular worming is essential as with all finches as I have seen a number of these birds with severe gizzard worm infestations
In smaller aviaries you would have to ensure that the hen has plenty of places to hide as the males tend to become quite ‘amorous’ once you hear that distinctive twittering and singing or see those wings drooped. Some cocks will actively pursue hens to the point of exhaustion in which case it might be worth placing another hen in the aviary. On this point I feel that it is better to (essential even!) to place new pairs and trios together well before the breeding season rather than risk upsetting the harmony when they commence breeding behaviours – as previously mentioned, you might get away with introducing new hens but not males! I have never bothered separating pairs outside the breeding season and know several other breeders that do like wise.
The availability of these guys is somewhat variable as one year they will be common and the next extremely hard to find. This might be explained by a colony rearing around 20 youngsters one season and then, the same birds next year, only rearing 6. These finches can live to around 10 years of age and I have an 8 year old male that still produces chicks and is an excellent feeder.
I have always considered myself fortunate in that I was able to obtain a few pairs of these guys all those years ago as I never tire of watching them ‘singing’ and pursuing the hens through the aviary. Their friendly disposition and willingness to breed makes them a welcome addition to any finch collection, any collection without Green singers I might add! They are also extremely tough and breed quite happily even here in chilly Tasmania.
I may never get to South America but I can always close my eyes and hear the call of the courting Mexican and envisage them wheeling through the scrub! Anyway, this is one bird that, at present, won’t break the bank balance and should give you years of enjoyment and, if they don’t measure up, you could always sell them and purchase a set of pan-pipes!