May 7, 2015 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2014

Brighter Than the Sun: American Goldfinch

American goldfinches have a pink bill during breeding season.
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American goldfinches are brightening feeder-filled backyards, weedy fields, and grassy meadows all over North America. In fact, 48 states and 9 provinces host the black-and-yellow birds for at least part of the year. Generally speaking, southern Canada has them during summer; the southern United States has them during winter; and the northern United States has them year-round.

Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington each claim the American goldfinch as their official state bird.

No doubt the species' popularity can be attributed in part to the male's colorful breeding plumage. From March through October, adult male American goldfinches are dressed in bright canary-yellow with a black forehead, wings, and tail. This is the goldfinch plumage everyone knows and loves. During winter those same males appear drab, olive-brown overall and may go unnoticed by the casual observer. If you're among the lucky ones who live within the American goldfinch's year-round range, don't assume the birds vacate your feeders each fall. Chances are they're still there, dressed in winter plumage.

Females, though never quite as colorful as males, are pale yellow during breeding season and dull brown during winter. All American goldfinches retain their black wings and tail in all plumages, a helpful, year-round identification clue.

Other identification clues include flight style and voice. The bouncy, undulating, roller-coaster-like flight of these birds is distinctive. Also listen for their twittering potato-chip flight call. During spring and summer, you may hear a male American goldfinch singing his hurried, warbling, and musical love song, similar to that of an indigo or lazuli bunting.

While most other North American songbirds incorporate insects and spiders into their summer diets, goldfinches feed almost exclusively on seeds and other plant matter, even during the breeding season. These birds are crazy about thistle seed—that tiny, thin, black seed that is usually offered in a special tube feeder or thistle sock. (Thistle seed is also called niger or nyjer seed and is available wherever you buy wild bird supplies.) Offering thistle seed outside your window is a surefire way to keep a goldfinch's attention throughout the seasons. And because goldfinches like to flock, your generous offerings may attract these colorful, hungry birds by the dozen: a dazzling, if costly, spectacle.

Thistle seed isn't the only feeder food fit for a goldfinch. Black-oil sunflower seeds are often voted second-best. Sunflower hearts or chips go over well, too, as do peanut bits.

Away from the feeders, American goldfinches go after a variety of seed-producing plants, including thistles (surprise), goldenrods, dandelions, sunflowers, coneflowers, zinnias, chicory, and mullein. Note that some people deem some of those plants weeds, but keeping goldenrods and dandelions in your yard will keep goldfinches around, too. Alder, birch, cedar, and elm trees also produce seeds favored by goldfinches.

American goldfinches' strong connection to plants has brought about a few interesting quirks in the birds' breeding habits. Most North American songbirds begin nesting in April or May. Goldfinches delay their breeding season to coincide with the peak abundance of seeds. This usually means that the birds set up housekeeping in late July or early August, with some pairs nesting as late as September.

A breeding pair together selects a shaded spot in a sapling or shrub, and the female alone builds the open cup nest from twigs (attached with spider web), rootlets, and plant stems, lined with soft thistledown or similarly soft material. She incubates four to six pale blue eggs for about two weeks, with the male bringing food to her on the nest. Both parents tend the nestlings for 12 to 17 days before they fledge.

One huge advantage that vegetarianism gives goldfinches over other birds is immunity to cowbird parasitism. Brown-headed cowbirds are infamous for laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, often causing the new, involuntary parents to raise the cowbird nestlings as their own. This usually results in the hosts' own young dying of neglect or starvation, causing population decline in many species.

Not so with goldfinches. Young cowbirds that hatch in goldfinch nests cannot survive the all-seed diet that parent goldfinches feed their nestlings.

The next time you hear a potato-chip overhead or catch sight of the wild canaries bustling around your feeders, remember everything that makes these birds unique.

It's more than sunny dispositions that set goldfinches apart from the rest of the avian world.

About Kyle Carlsen

Kyle is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. When not writing about birds, he divides his time between backpacking, traveling, and composing piano music. He's also a self-described coffee addict.

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