Antillean Siskin (Spinus dominicensis)

Like other finches (Fringillidae) this handsome, brightly colored Antillean siskin has a strong, conical bill adapted to eat seeds. Although it is only about 11centimeters long, this tiny finch has lots of personality. The origin of its Spanish name, canario (canary), may hark back to its similarity with another finch, the Atlantic Canary (Serinus canaria), endemic of the Canary Islands, Azores and Madeira, but domesticated for centuries in Europe. The plumage of the male and female Antillean siskin differ dramatically. The males are bright yellow with an olive green back, a glossy black hood and a black tail with two yellow patches. The females are light yellow and olive green on the back, with faint gray streaks on the belly and two yellow bars on the wings. This type of sexual dimorphism is relatively common in birds in which the female selects her mate.

The pigments responsible for these bright colors (carotenoids) in finches appear to be good indicators of the male’s health status as well as its ability to find food, both of which make for a better mate. However, perhaps the most special thing about the Antillean siskin is the fascinating ancient story that it tells us. This species is the only one of its genus in the Caribbean. However, instead of having arrived from the American continent to colonize Hispaniola, it seems to have been the other way round: an ancestor of today’s Antillean siskin left the Caribbean to colonize North America. We know this because genetic studies have revealed that the Antillean siskin is the oldest among its North American congeners. Experts believe it originally evolved from the Eurasian siskin, which appears to have reached North America through Beringia or Greenland during the Pliocene (3.6 to 5.4 million years ago), eventually reaching Hispaniola. Subsequently, this finch ancestor stock seems to have been extirpated from North America, with the sole surviving population in the Caribbean. There, on Hispaniola, the ancestral siskin would have evolved into the present species, the Antillean siskin, around two million years ago. Finally, the Antillean species seems to have re-colonized North America, giving rise to at least the three siskin species now present there, with the oldest diverging about 200,000 years ago.

LC Least concern

Conservation status

The Antillean siskin is typically found in pine forests and weedy clearings in the central mountains of Hispaniola, on both sides of the Dominican-Haitian border from 500 to 3,000 meters elevation. In Sierra de Bahoruco they also occur in montane broadleaf forests. They are often seen foraging in small flocks, actively flying from one tree to another or between shrubs and grasses, always chattering away. When searching for food they can be “comical, acting mischievously, hanging with their head down on branches, or trying to get seeds on the fly.”

“What noise! What a surprise to find out that such a small bird could be so loud!” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
“Its golden color is so bright that a person has to be completely blind not to see it.” Anabelle Stockton de Dod
“As they fly the eye is instinctively drawn to them by the brilliant, contrasting plumage of the males with its flashes of yellow and black.” Alexander Wetmore and Bradshaw H. Swales

Its varied calls include a high-pitched swee-ee, low, bubbling trills and a soft chut-chut when flushed. They typically build their cup-shaped nests in pine forests, placing them either in a pine tree or in a shrub. The female lays 2 to 3 greenish-white eggs mottled with brown. Although its populations have almost certainly declined due to habitat loss, they remain healthy enough to avoid threatened species lists.