To spot an American goldfinch in its full lemon laden glory is a beautiful moment... that most of us Floridians will never enjoy. Yet beauty is in the eye of the beholder, er, bird feeder, and this handsome songbird can still make a lovely window companion during its winter stay with us. The American goldfinch, so handsome he's the official state bird for three states, is the only of its finch family to undergo a complete molt before migrating to us for the winter season. And with colder days approaching, plan for their arrival by learning how to identify and attract these loyal vactioners.
This bird is fairly common throughout the country, spanning from coast to coast. Its summer breeding range is in the far north near Canada, and then maintains a permeant residency in most of the US. A migratory bird, the goldfinch will head south during winter months to escape the cold, stretching through southern states and into parts of Mexico.
The American goldfinch is a dedicated vegetarian, so prefers open country, such as fields and meadows, with heavy weeds and other overgrown brush. By this they also often frequent deciduous, riverside, or regrown woodlands. Consequently, they avoid deep forested areas. As natural resources become more scarce in the season, this bird can easily be attracted to backyards and gardens, and seed-filled feeders.
Breeding & Nesting
The American goldfinch is too busy stuffing its beak with seeds during typical breeding season, for it waits to breed later than any other North American bird or finch subfamily. As with common courtship rituals of the feathered, males often use aerial exercises of impressive speed and pattern to woo their mate.
The nest, which is built in late summer, is a tightly woven cup of small roots and plant fibers. The female uses spider silk to stabilize the nest between surrounding branches. After she has finished the base, she will then go and collect pappus material of the more feathery soft variety, creating a comfy base for her soon-to-be babies. The entire process takes 6 full days to build, as the female works independently in 10 to 40 minute intervals.
Being among one of the most strict vegetarians in the bird world, this bird feeds almost exclusively on seeds. So strict, they are the only songbird to feed their young exclusively seeds. This makes the goldfinch particularly fond of native 'weeds' as some may know: milkweed, sunflower, aster, and thistle plants.
Seedheads of colorful flowers, such as marigolds, daises, poppies, and sunflower varieties are an especial treat. Other munchies include grasses, berries, and various trees such as birch and elm. Of course if you’re just a little too lazy when it comes to yard work, you can simply let your weeds grow in peace as a natural food choice for the finch.
The goldfinch will continue to remain in open fields, meadows, or plant-specific gardens to feed for as long as possible until they run short on natural resources. If you have feeders prepared with their special seed mix early in the season, you may need to refill with a more fresh supply as the weather continues to drop and feeders become a primary food resource. Unintentionally leaving stale or rancid seeds in your feeder will only discourage the birds from future activity there.
The American goldfinch is the only finch in its family to completely molt their feathers. This process happens twice a year, once spring and again in autumn. The male maintains his bright golden locks in early spring throughout the warmer months and is hard to miss. His entire body is coated a bright lemon yellow, with matching jet black cap and wings. In late fall begins his transformation to a more dusty olive, “cinnamon brown” if you will, with a white lower belly and more boldly patterned wings. The females maintain a more dull olive shade throughout the entire year, with yellow underparts and head that brightens slightly during summer. During winter, the female goes full fab drab in gray body with brown streaks and black wings.
This goldfinch is fairly easy to attract being the unprejudiced plant eater it is, especially during the winter seasons. Creating a space of native plants, flowers, and nesting material can encourage their visit during spring and summer, while they still shine a pretty yellow. You can choose to grow many of their favorite plants in your own back yard, preferably in a designated open space in reference to their familiar fields or meadows. Allow your native weeds and wildflowers to grow, such as thistles, milkweed, and dandelion. You can also plant an assortment of brightly colored seed-producing flowers like daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, and zinnias.
For those who have goldfinch common in their breeding season, you can supply nesting materials such as unspun wool, cotton balls, or down-line milkweed pods. And if space permits, you can plant a large trees and shrubs of all types that may provide potential nesting sites.
If growing your own goldfinch sanctuary is out the questions, these birds will still be happy to visit feeders. A particular plus for those who must wait until their winter visit. Be sure to fill feeders with plenty of their favorite seeds, such as sunflower (preferably black oil) and thistle seeds.
The American goldfinch is often referred to as the Wild Canary, for its equally elated songs and bright yellow hue. These birds continue to learn new song patterns throughout their entire life, often complex with long series of warbles and tweets lasting several seconds long. The even sing while flying, as the wave-shape pattern of their flight effects how they vocalize during the flapping phase and then silent while coasting.
The female will often call to her mate while nesting with a soft continuous “tee” repetition. Once the young have hatched, they will use the same call “chick-kee” for their entire stay in the nest. Prepared for protection, the goldfinch has two defense calls made during nesting: one to rally other goldfinches to return to the nest and distract predators; the other used to notify the nestlings to be silent and crouch until potential danger has passed.
Though we may not be able to enjoy this goldfinch during its namesake seasons, we can still prepare for their arrival to provide them an equally pleasing winter vacation. Tallahassee residents: be sure to stop by our local Native Nurseries to pick up goldfinch fave seed snacks, feeders, and more.