Look out a sunny window in August and you're bound to see a flurry of hungry birds at the backyard feeders. They often squabble and flutter their wings at each other as they vie for favorite feeding spots. But the perky yellow American goldfinches with their jaunty black caps and black and white wings, catch the eye immediately. These little bursts of sunshine rank with the cardinals and bluejays as some of the most recognizable and colorful feeder birds of summer.
Carduelis tristis – American goldfinch
The goldfinch is unusual among birds in that it waits until late summer, when thistles have bloomed and gone to seed, to build its nest and rear young. It uses the down from the thistle head to line the nest and the dried seeds to feed its babies. In fact the genus name Carduelis is derived from a Latin word meaning "thistle." Goldfinches often stay year-round but will also migrate from some areas from early October to mid-November. They are common in weedy fields, especially those containing thistle and burdock, and in shrub lands, meadows, woodland edges, parks, and backyard gardens.
The goldfinches are among the few songbirds that are almost entirely vegetarian. They eat very few insects, even when young. No "bug stew" for these youngsters, as they are fed mostly seeds and plant matter instead. Known for their mannerly feeding habits, these friendly little birds usually behave well around species their own size like sparrows, finches, and other songbirds. They are easily intimidated, however, by larger birds such as starlings, grackles, and bluejays. They seem to enjoy the social atmosphere found around the feeders and will eagerly feed from hopper, platform, and hanging styles. They don't mind those that sway in the wind, and have an amazing ability to hang upside-down as they pluck out the tasty tidbits. This habit of clinging to feed sacks and feeders upside-down is a skill that sparrows, house finches, and most other feeder birds lack. They can often be seen hanging head first from the top of a large sunflower head, deftly pecking out the seeds from below. Their unique clinging ability helps them as they bob and sway on seed heads of the grasses, weeds, and the seed-producing garden flowers that they crave. Favorite perennials include asters and purple coneflowers, but they also are drawn to annuals like zinnias, cosmos, and, of course, sunflowers.
Small in stature, the American Goldfinch is usually between four and five inches long, about an inch shorter than a sparrow. But they are not hard to notice. At the peak of the breeding season, the male displays plumage of bright yellow with a black forehead and cap, and black and white wings; tail feathers have white edges. In winter months, males develop a duller plumage where the yellow fades to more greenish-yellow tones. In spring, the males may have a blotchy look for several weeks until late summer when the peak of their breeding season rolls around again and the yellow is most vibrant. What a knock-out he is! Females and juveniles are an olive-green washed in yellow, with faint wing bars. Identifying females and immature birds is a good way to test our birding skills, as the females get even plainer in winter– they are grayer and lose some of their olive color.
Because they lay their eggs so late (in summer, when their favorite seeds are abundant), goldfinches can afford to molt in spring in addition to autumn. Most bird species molt and replace their feathers only once a year in the fall. Laying eggs in the spring means that these other birds must save their energy for producing and rearing young, therefore a spring "change of clothes" is not an option for them. During molts, the goldfinch may look bizarrely patchy over the weeks as one set of feathers is replaced by the next. Since they usually stay around all year, it can be fun to watch their changes in coloration.
Nesting occurs any time from early July until mid-September when many of the birds' favorite plants have gone to seed. They lay four to seven bluish-white eggs low in shrubbery or hedges, but may also nest in a maple, oak, or other deciduous tree, or in pines as far as thirty feet up. It is interesting to watch goldfinches collecting plant down for their nests at around the time that thistles mature enough to provide the soft, downy fibers that the birds prefer.
The female is a faithful mother, sitting on her eggs almost continuously. Her job is made easier by the male who dutifully brings meals of seeds and a few insects to her. The nest is densely woven of plant fibers, strengthened with spider and caterpillar webs and lined with the down of the thistle. Because they nest so late, they usually raise only a single brood per season, and both birds will work 11-15 days rearing their young to flight size. The fledglings give a distinctive, peeping "chip-ee, chip-ee" as they beg for mom and dad's attention. True to form, even the young are fed mostly on seeds.
It is always fascinating to watch these birds in flight, as they often travel in tight flocks (except when nesting and raising young) in a frequent, bouncy, undulating motion as though on a roller coaster ride with their deep dips and swerves. Since they are such gregarious birds, seeing them in mixed flocks with sparrows and chickadees is not uncommon. They often sing a familiar bright trill that sounds like "per-chik-o-ree" or "ti-dee-dy-dy" even as they fly. Their song, a long series of various warbles and twitters, is so pleasing that they have often been compared to the beautiful song of the singing pet shop birds. In fact, German immigrants familiar with the Old Word songbirds dubbed the American Goldfinch the "wild canary."
How do we attract them to our yards? Sunflower seeds (black oil are a favorite) and niger thistle seeds (in a thistle seed feeder or sock) are a menu mainstay for these birds in our backyard gardens. Supplying nesting materials such as unspun wool, cotton puffs, and down-lined milkweed pods will attract them. Planting their favorite seed-producing flowers and leaving dandelions in place is appreciated. The little parachute-topped seeds of dandelions are a big hit with these birds, and being sunny and yellow, they're a natural match. A saucer of rock salt or a salt block on the ground around feeders is sure to please them. And don't forget to keep the birdbath and other water sources filled with fresh, clean water, because these seed-eaters need to drink. Besides, they love to splash and throw water everywhere as they bathe!
Throughout the summer, enjoy the goldfinches. By doing so, you'll add little bolts of sunshine to your day!