What can be mistaken for a dandelion on the spring lawn, vanish into the gray branches in winter, and always bring a smile to a bird-lover’s face? The American Goldfinch. This familiar little bird is one of North America’s smallest species of finch. It is well-known and well-loved throughout the United States, including Pickaway County, and Canada.
Recognizing the Goldfinch
The American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis, is not at all related to the bird known as the Goldfinch in Europe. It is a member of the finch family, with a conical bill and feeding preference of seeds and vegetation. Smaller than a sparrow, the Goldfinch exhibits what is known as sexual dimorphism. While many birds have males that look different than females, the American Goldfinch shows a difference which is quite striking. In the breeding season, the males are a brilliant lemon-yellow, with black caps on their heads, deep black wings with pale wing bars, and black tails streaked with white. The females, on the other hand, are a yellowish-olive, with wing and tail markings that are not as vivid as the males.
Not only do the males and females look different, but both species change dramatically in the winter. The Goldfinch is the only species of North American finch which molts out its feathers twice a year, completely changing its appearance. In the non-breeding months, both species are a dull brown with just a bit of yellowish or olive shading. The males lose their black cap, and the black on the wings and tails becomes much less vivid. The juvenile birds, until they reach their first mature season, look similar to the winter adult plumage.
Many bird lovers recognize the bright yellow Goldfinch as seen in the spring and summer months, but might not realize that the drab little brownish birds at their winter feeders are the very same individuals. There are four subspecies of American Goldfinch, distinguishable by slight variations of color and markings, though all are readily recognized as Goldfinches.
Where Do Goldfinches Live?
The American Goldfinch can be found from as far north as Alberta, Canada in the breeding season, all the way to the most southern parts of the United States in the winter. Goldfinches do migrate, following the warmer temperatures as the cold moves in, though they can still often be seen in much of their range in the winter. If food sources are plentiful, and the temperatures do not commonly dip below 0-degrees Fahrenheit, the Goldfinch will stay around quite late into the season. They will then gradually move southward to avoid the truly bitter cold.
These little birds tend to habituate open woodlands and fields. Their food consists of seeds, some berries, and other vegetation, and they prefer to forage in the brush and weedy areas. They nest in shrubs and the lower branches of trees where their nests can be protected, and they browse for food in the foliage. Goldfinches have even been known to frequent vegetable gardens, where they enjoy an occasional treat of human-planted greens.
Feeding Preferences and Behavior
The Goldfinch can often be seen to feed in combination flocks with other smaller species, such as Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Redpolls. They are a common sight at feeders, preferring sunflower seeds and nyger. Almost all types of feeder will attract them, though they are one of the species that will enjoy thistle socks and nyger feeders, which larger birds are unable to utilize.
An area of a yard which allowed to go to weeds such as thistle, milkweed, and even dandelion will attract Goldfinches, sometimes in large numbers.
Goldfinches are rather acrobatic little birds. They are frequently seen balancing on a thistle head, tearing out the fluff as they enjoy the seeds, or hanging on the side of a tube feeder. They have powerful little feet, and are rarely bothered by tall weeds or hanging feeders blowing in the wind.
The flight of the Goldfinch is bouncy and undulating. They fly in dips and crests, and often call out in a squeaky, pleasant pattern as they go. The male has a lovely, high song which is varied and consists of a variety of jumbled notes. He will typically sit high at the very top of a conifer tree, singing his territorial song.
Breeding and Nesting
The Goldfinch tends to begin their breeding cycle later in the season than other birds, because they use the fluff from milkweed and thistle as a key component of their nests. They are a monogamous species, once a mate is chosen. The male begins the courtship ritual by chasing the female, who will work to evade him. If he can prove himself through his stamina and persistence, the flight will change to a mating flight composed of wide circles.
The male then chooses the nesting territory, and defends it from other males, while the female begins building the nest. Once the site is established, Goldfinches will often allow other pairs to share the same general area, which is believed to help them protect the young from predators.
The nest consists of bark, weeds, and vines lined with the fluff from milkweed, cattail, and thistle. It is tightly woven and even waterproof. The female lays 4-6 tiny blueish-white eggs, which hatch in 12 to 14 days.
The babies are born naked, but develop very quickly. The mother bird feeds the nestlings by regurgitating food for them. They begin their fledging process at around 2 weeks of age. The male parent will continue to feed the young until they are fully independent, often for as long as three weeks after they leave the nest.
• Goldfinches are the only American finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, in late winter and again in late summer.
• These little birds are almost totally vegetarians, only feeding a tiny bit of insect protein to their young in the nest. This is one reason that parasitic species such as cowbirds, which require a diet of insects, rarely survive the nestling phase if the egg is laid in a Goldfinch nest.
• Goldfinch pairs develop almost identical flight calls. This allows the birds to always be able to distinguish their own mate’s location in a flock while in flight, and they learn to recognize the other individuals of their flock as well.
• The oldest American Goldfinch on record was a bird banded in Maryland, who lived to be 10 years and 9 months of age.
• The American Goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington.
The tiny American Goldfinch is a well-loved backyard visitor in the United States and Canada. Their bright yellow plumage and high, trilling song brightens our summer days. By providing habitat and food that these little birds enjoy, bird-watchers can enjoy their acrobatic feeding antics, get to know them better, and encourage the preservation of the species.
Image by Miles Moody