August 1, 2022

Welcome New Neighbors to Your Backdoor—American Goldfinch

Photos by Joyce Flanagan.

American goldfinches exude happiness. Whether at the birdfeeder, along a brushy fencerow, or flying overhead, they possess a cheerful demeanor. You can catch their joy, if you pay attention to them. Their characteristic twitter is unmistakable. Nothing is quite as uplifting as a flock of goldfinches passing overhead voicing their distinct repertoire—a mixture of generic twitter punctuated by some “seinns” and ”seinnts,” with each dip of their rollercoaster-like, undulating flight. Often, early on a gloomy morning, goldfinches literally mob a tube feeder, occupying every portal, declaring what a wonderful morning it is. How can you argue with such exuberance?

A bright yellow and black goldfinch perches on a dried seed head of a purple cone flower.

Male goldfinches know how to put their best foot forward when seeking a mate. That first faint blush of brighter yellow appears on a male’s breast in early spring and rapidly spreads over most of the rest of his body except for the wings and tail that take on shades of brownish black accentuated with white edges. Males also sport a black cap during breeding season.

By mid-September, the drabness of winter begins overtaking the males with a loss of the bright yellow coloration and black cap. During winter, the male’s body coloration is somewhat similar to the female’s, with shades of dull grayish olive yellow predominating. These seasonal color changes of the male are triggered by a partial prenuptial molt in spring followed by a complete postnuptial molt in fall. When a male’s and female’s appearances become somewhat similar in fall, a person not familiar with this species often assumes they have all migrated southward, not realizing they are still here.

Nests are very well made by the female and often survive in situ for several seasons. Usually built in shrubs and small trees, nests are most often low to the ground. Goldfinches have a penchant for thistle. They not only love to eat thistle seed, but also line nests with thistle down, making the nest lining soft and nearly watertight. Eggs are pale blue and whitish in color, sometimes with very light brown spots. Usually, five to six eggs are laid in these down-lined nests rather late, anywhere from mid-June to late August. This timing coincides with seed maturation of thistle and other weeds. The female uses the seed down in nest construction. Although the adults have a liking for seeds such as thistle, dandelion, sunflower, and ragweed, hatchlings are fed mostly insects.

A bright yellow and black goldfinch perches on a thistle plant and forages thistle seed from a dried flower.

Most rural folk called American goldfinches “wild canaries.” No wonder. The yellow coloration, small size, and twittering song made such a moniker a logical choice. Historically, goldfinches were found near their favorite seed sources along edge habitats, junctures of farm fields and woodlands, brushy fencerows, and unmanicured dredge ditches and cultivated fields. A special treat for any farm kid was seeing a flock of wild canaries intermingling and feeding with indigo buntings along a weed- and brush-flanked drainage ditch. Such an aesthetic encounter was often the high point of a day of hard labor and the topic of discussion at the supper table.

American goldfinches frequent towns and both rural and urban backyards. Being both a common resident breeding bird as well as a spring and fall migrant gives the city dweller a good chance at attracting goldfinches. A good strategy is putting up a tube feeder filled with thistle seed if you can spare the extra change. Or, just fill the feeder with small black oil sunflower seeds—a favorite at any price. Goldfinches clean up any sunflower seeds that fall to the ground from tube feeders. If your backyard is isolated and you don’t have to endure the wrath of neighbors, letting dandelions grow is another draw. Goldfinches love dandelion seeds even though neighbors may not.

Robert J. Reber is an emeritus faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has been a lifelong student of many aspects of the Natural World, including archaeology. Bob has served as a managing editor and author for publications such as The Illinois Steward magazine and the Illinois Master Naturalist Curriculum Guide.

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