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The Red Siskin - Carduelis cucullata

Red siskins are very unique little birds in many ways. As beautiful as any bird we keep, with fairly specialised requirements if regular breeding is to be achieved.

Wild stocks originate from isolated pockets of Northern South America where the species is now regarded as highly endangered. This rarity in the wild has been largely brought about by past trapping for the caged bird trade - a shameful blight on aviculture in general. The species has suffered in this way because of its beauty and close genetic relationship to the domestic canary. It is in canary-like conditions where most of the imported specimens were kept in Europe and the U.S. Red siskin-canary crosses were used in early stages of the development of red-factor canaries and to this day some canary breeders continue to defile this beautiful bird by intentionally crossing them with canaries for reasons which escape my comprehension. They will readily cross with the Hooded Yellow Siskin which also should be discouraged. Any of the Gold finches, Green finches, Singers or Serins are other hybrid possibilities so should not share breeding quarters with Red Siskins. To ensure purity of stock, always select for small size and strong natural orange/red colour in both sexes. There is marked individual variation within the species in certain traits, most notably the depth of colour on males but also the shape of the black hood. Some specimens have a rounded boundary to the black area around the chin and others have a small black vee under the chin. In hens there is considerable variation in the intensity and area of the frontal red areas. If young hens are bred late in the season they may not attain their full area and depth of colour until their second season. However, a reliable indicator of such hens which will show strong frontal colour is the brightness of the orange wing flash. Ones with a bright wing flash at the first moult will mostly turn out to have strong frontal colour.


Red siskins look fantastic when viewed in natural sunlight in large planted outdoor aviaries. In fact, if they donít receive direct sunlight they are unable to naturally maintain strong body colour. In large aviaries they generally make themselves visible to the observer as they clearly dislike going down to the ground for any reason and like to feed, roost, court and nest well up above the ground. This is an important consideration for setting up a suitable aviary for them. I provide their dry seed in raised feeding stations or shelves, I peg up any greens or seed heads at head-height and provide nest sites and nesting materials in the higher parts of the aviary.

I find them to be, by far, the most placid of any cardueline or serinus (cup-nesting) species I have kept. They are entirely suitable for mixing with other placid or timid species. Because their dietary and nesting requirements are so different from estrildid species, they donít seem to compete for the same resources within the aviary and harmony most often prevails as long as breeding aviaries are stocked very lightly. They have been kept and bred as single pairs, trios, and small colonies with varying degrees of success. I favour single pairs and prefer to not house them in adjoining aviaries with wire mesh petitions as they can be highly disruptive and distracting to neighbouring pairs. For me, single pairs in every second aviary works best.

Their dietary requirements are very specific. In a nutshell, dry seed wants and needs are niger and sunflower kernels. Very little else outside of these two will even get a sideways glance. Some of the other oil seeds such as maw, rape and linseed will get an occasional pick but niger and sunflower kernels are the staple dry seed diet. It sounds terribly oily and fattening but these guys just seem to have the metabolism to handle it without any obesity issues. Any traditional finch mix of millets, etc is generally ignored altogether. If someone suggests that their Red Siskins eat alot of canary seed or egg food then this is a classic alarm bell that their birds may have been fostered under canaries.  I have recently noticed some of my pairs regularly taking sprouted oilseeds out of my sprouted seed mix. Of these, they particularly favour sprouted niger, safflower and rape. Niger and safflower are very quick and easy to sprout compared to most other seeds.  Dry cuttlebone is the favoured calcium source. Siskins seem to prefer picking at larger pieces rather than smaller crushed particles.

The other essential component for true contentment and absolute necessity for successful breeding is regular greens of all types. Weeds, grass heads, broadleaf veges and herbs are all relished. The green component of the diet is crucial to strong natural body colour and as the primary rearing food. Particular favourites are milk-thistle heads, white-french millet heads, rape seed pods, niger seed pods, chicory and Yugoslav cabbage leaves, Lebanese cucumber, small-flowering sunflower heads, broccoli heads or any other grass seed or green food that any other finch eats. When pairs are feeding young, I especially seek those greens which contain live aphids. These are the only kind of live food I have been able to persuade my birds to take regularly. Aphids seem to particularly favour thistle heads, any brassicas (rape, broccoli, kale, etc) and many seeding grasses especially summer grass and white millet heads. It certainly pays to have a weedy yard to cater for Red Siskins - thatís my excuse anyway.

Breeding activity is strictly seasonal from September to May. The beginning of the season is heralded by enthusiastic singing by the males. Some are better singers than others, but generally they are beautiful whistlers in canary-like tones but not as loud or as sustained as canary song. If the hen is interested she will solicit the male to feed her by quivering her wings.

They build a small cup-shaped nest preferring to build in dried tea-tree brush attached to aviary walls, however they will at times build in small tins or canary nest cups or sometimes even on flat corners on aviary frames. I find that their first choice nest site is in the lower forks of dried brush at a site which receives the first rays of morning sunshine. Nest materials I use are coconut fibre, teased short lengths of hessian, and cotton waste. The hen is the main nest builder from start to finish although cocks often pick at and carry nest material at early stages, seemingly to entice the hen to build a nest. Preferred nest height is from about 1.2m upwards tending to favour higher sites.

My Red Siskins have always laid either 3 or 4 eggs per clutch. Fertility is generally very good. I find it very unusual to have more than one infertile egg in a clutch and most clutches are all fertile. What happens beyond the egg laying stage is very much dependant on where you purchased your breeding stock. The chronic over use of canaries as foster parents for young Red Siskins has had seriously harmful effects on many pairs' ability to self-rear their own young. Where this has been carried out over several generations, strains of birds have been developed without the ability to rear their own young. This practice very strongly selects against the vital trait of parenting ability. With such an endangered and beautiful species, I find the practice of fostering to be highly unethical. It produces very poor quality birds which are not capable of sustaining their future population without adopting ďlaboratory ratĒ husbandry techniques. Apart from the lack of sufficient parenting instincts, such birds usually exhibit very poor natural colour. Naturally bright orange/red body colour is a genetically inherited trait. When Red Siskins are raised in indoor birdrooms without access to direct sunlight, they are physically incapable of attaining their brightest natural colour. Any birds so produced, can only attain acceptable and marketable colour levels when they have been colour-fed with carotene supplements such as canary colour foods. When this occurs it is impossible to select breeding birds strong in natural colour traits as they cannot be physically identified. Any colour they exhibit is a complete con and cannot be maintained beyond the next moult unless colour-fed again.

Naturally bright coloured birds from parent-reared aviary-bred strains are vastly superior birds to canary-raised specimens. If your intention is to attempt to have your pairs raise their own young, then I would avoid fostered birds like the plague, irrespective of price. The best way to avoid purchasing such poor stock is to not buy sight unseen from someone you donít know or trust. If the sellers collection contains canaries, be very suspicious.

In a good parent-rearing strain of Red Siskins, hens sit tightly and cocks will drive the hen back onto the nest most times she leaves it. The cock will feed the hen on the nest. Incubation lasts 13 days from when the hen sets.

After hatching, the parents demand for grass seeds, greens and aphids becomes feverish. I feed these greens at least twice a day from hatching to independence, ideally 3 times a day. To do so any less than twice a day usually results in frustratingly high levels of infant mortality. There are two crucial danger periods when losses are most likely to occur. The first few days after hatching and again at the 9-10 day old mark seem to be the crucial times. The early danger period is a test of the parents feeding ability and brooding skills. Deaths at this time seem to occur mostly as a result of lack of food or over-zealous brooding suffocating or squashing the delicate young. At 9-10 day old stage the hen usually ceases brooding the young and this coincides with the advanced pin feather to feather opening stage so young are mostly at risk of exposure if night temperatures are low. Losses at this stage are less likely if clutch size is greater than 2 as the young seem to benefit from the extra body warmth. At this stage, some dedicated breeders make little woollen hoods to be placed over the nest late afternoon and removed early next morning. This method is very successful at reducing losses at this stage. Another cause of juvenile mortality I have experienced comes from feeding seeding grasses with long sharp seeds. I have had dead youngsters with their crop wall pierced by the whole seed of rye grass and prairie grass, so I donít feed these any more. The best breeding pairs I have had are ones where the cock takes on a very active feeding role once young have fledged allowing the hen to re-nest without corresponding loss of condition in the fledged young. Generally speaking, if the parents are good enough to get the young to the fledging stage, losses thereafter are most uncommon.

Once Red Siskins attain mature plumage I have found them to be among the most hardy and long-lived finches I have kept. Their arboreal nature significantly minimises risk of coccidiosis, worm infestations, or many other bacterial or fungal infections. Most of these proliferate on aviary floors, particularly damp ones. Such areas are avoided by siskins most of the time. My siskins still receive regular preventative worming and coccidia treatments aimed mostly at more insectivorous ground-loving species which share their aviaries.

All in all, Red Siskins are fascinating aviary birds possessing beautiful plumage, distinctive habits and character, and are a genuine challenge to achieve consistent breeding results using self-rearing aviary stock. Thankfully, in Australia there is a core of dedicated breeders using top quality self-rearing strains of this species. These breeders are the only recommended source for worthwhile breeding stock.

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