Summer’s bright American goldfinches will soon transform into their dull winter plumage

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                            An American goldfinch feeds on thistle seeds from a feeder designed to contain these tiny seeds.

I received a phone call recently from Allan Vance, who had a question about American goldfinches. Allan told me he moved back to Bristol about nine years ago after living for about 30 years in Savannah, Georgia. He now resides in the community of Middlebrook, where he feeds the various birds that flock to his yard.

Allan explained that the goldfinches had become conspicuous in their absence from his yard starting a few weeks ago. “I haven’t seen a single one in weeks,” he said.

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A thistle sock with seeds favored by American goldfinches.

Allan purchases thistle socks for the flock of goldfinches at his home. These “socks” are actually long, mesh bags holding the tiny seeds of the nyjer plant. Although these seeds are also known as thistle seeds, they are not related to the thistle plants that are sometimes classified as noxious weeds. Finches are able to cling to the sides of the mesh socks as they carefully remove the seeds. The tiny seeds are quite securely held within the mesh socks. Special feeders with small ports for dispensing of these tiny seeds are also available.

After he purchased his most recent thistle sock, Allan expected the birds to visit it as is their usual custom.     After several weeks, only one bird — not a goldfinch — had visited the sock. He wondered if there might be some explanation behind the goldfinches suddenly turning their backs on these favorite seeds.

I explained that there were two possible reasons, which are somewhat connected to each other, for the goldfinches suddenly shunning the sock. It’s early fall and there’s an abundance of natural food sources available to fold finches. Many roadside, fields and gardens are filled with plants that are already producing a banquet of fresh seeds for finches and other seed-loving birds. It’s possible that, faced with a smorgasbord of other foods, the goldfinches are no longer quite as reliant on the seeds in Allan’s thistle socks.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    An American goldfinch showing its bright summer plumage.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed to coincide with a time of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on insects, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in insects.

In addition to feeding birds, his yard serves as a place for them to nest. He noted that wrens have successfully nested at his home over the years. He said a funny memory from years ago involved a white-tailed deer at a feeder. “I saw this doe raiding my feeder,” he said, adding that the deer used its tongue to lick seeds from the feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A fall American goldfinch looks quite different than it does at the height of summer.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            A male American Goldfinch perches on a barbed wire fence.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant bird undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                  Winter goldfinches are not the birds of splendid appearance that they wear during the summer months.

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