Jan 27, 2021 | Featured Web Article

On Thistle and Goldfinches in Winter

American goldfinches change plumage in winter. Soon after nesting in late summer, they shed their bright yellow body feathers as dull, drab feathers push them out.

Snow is falling as I type this, adding whiteness to the slush that has accumulated over the past few days during which the temperature has hovered around freezing. It was when precipitation accompanied wintry temperatures that goldfinches returned to my feeders. Welcome back, goldfinches!

The truth is, though, that goldfinches never left my neighborhood. Throughout much of its range in the US, American goldfinches are nonmigratory, and assumed to be year-round residents. Across southern Canada and the northern Plains states, though, they are migratory, breeding in the summer, then heading south for the chilly months. Along the west coast, from southern Washington into Baja California, and east to the southeastern coast, American goldfinches are winter visitors.

American goldfinches can be found year-round where I live, but that doesn't mean they are continually and predictably present at my feeders—as are house finches, cardinals, Carolina wrens, titmice, chickadees, starlings, and house sparrows.

American goldfinches at thistle sock feeders. Photo by R. Scholten.

A Watching Backyard Birds subscriber emailed me a few days ago to ask me why the American goldfinches had abandoned her thistle feeder all of a sudden. She said she had several Nyjer (thistle) feeders that she kept full, and the finches had been abundant there until recently.

Several factors may explain this: First, American goldfinches are strict vegetarians, and they are adept at finding natural food sources—seeds from a variety of plants—throughout the year. Good weather and abundant seeds in late autumn and early winter may encourage goldfinches to opt for natural food sources over human-provided ones. But when the weather turns wet and cold, it is much more comfortable (I assume) for them to find seeds at feeders. My feeders are especially welcoming during inclement weather since they hang from the roof of my deck. My seed is always dry, and the birds can dine in a dry place.

Second, I learned the hard way that Nyjer (thistle) seed has a short shelf life. Several years ago, our local wild-bird feeding store had thistle seed on sale at a steep discount. I bought ten 10-pound bags, because the finches at my feeders were such pigs. I refilled my thistle tube faithfully every day, and those little birds ate most of it. Most, not all. Undesirable seeds, maybe bad seeds, were accumulating at the bottom of the thistle tube. Every day, the finches would eat less.

Responsible bird-feeder operator that I am, every few weeks I'd dump and wash the feeders and refill them with new seed, but within a month, the finches started ignoring the thistle completely. They went from gluttony to fasting in no time at all, or so it seemed. My goldfinches left me, and I still had about 80 pounds of thistle in my garage; eight 10-pound bags of thistle drying out, becoming inedible. Just for kicks, I went to the store and bought one 10-pound bag of fresh thistle. I emptied the old (full) tube, and washed it, and put in about a cup of fresh seed. Within a few days, the goldfinches were back.

American goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo by Shutterstock.

Lessons learned:

  • Only put out as much thistle as the finches will eat in one day.
  • If there is residual thistle in a feeder, don't top it off with fresh seed; leave it until it's gone, or dump it and refill with fresh seed.
  • Whether in a sealed bag or in an open feeder, Nyjer spoils.
  • Don't buy thistle in huge quantities no matter how good the price.

The person who emailed me said she kept her thistle feeders full. While that sounds like the right thing to do, from personal experience I recommend against topping off a thistle feeder.

American goldfinches in winter plumage. Photo by Shutterstock.

And finally, I have learned that many people don't recognize American goldfinches at this time of when they show up to dine: Soon after nesting in late summer, they shed their bright yellow body feathers as dull, drab feathers push them out. Throughout the winter, both males and females are grayish yellow, with males being slightly more yellow, and females more gray. Both sexes retain their black wing feathers and contrasting wing bars. Throughout the year American goldfinches have dark eyes and a dark, conical bill. They are small, too; noticeably smaller than house finches and everything else at my feeder—except their cousins, pine siskins. Some of my neighbors and local friends have asked me when the goldfinches return. The truth is that they never left; they just changed into their drab outfits.

Sometime in March or April, bright yellow feathers will push out the dull plumage; the yellowing of goldfinches is a sure sign of spring. But at this time of year, the goldfinches at my feeder are as gray as the sky is today.

Lawrence's goldfinch (left) by Mike's Birds / Wikimedia. Lesser goldfinches (right) by Matt Knoth / Wikimedia.

One more thing: I've made a point to call these birds "American goldfinches" because there are three goldfinch species in North America. The lesser goldfinch resides throughout the Southwest; it is a summer resident of Northern California and the Four Corner states, but can be found year-round along the Pacific coast, southwestern Arizona, southern New Mexico, southern Texas, and throughout Mexico. Lawrence's goldfinch breeds in California and nests in southern Arizona, southeastern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico; coastal southern California and northern Baja California host the species year-round. Of the three goldfinches on this continent, the American goldfinch is by far the most widespread.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021