For the Birds: American Goldfinch – The Wild One

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

American Goldfinch in April. Photo by Christine Southwick
By Christine Southwick

With its vibrant yellow plumage, black cap worn jauntily low over its forehead, black tail and wings edged with white, the American Goldfinch is always a welcome summer sight at local feeders. This goldfinch arrives in small flocks, often calling while flying in an undulating (roller-coaster) fashion.

American Goldfinches were first identified in print in 1758. They became Washington’s State Bird in 1951 after being picked the favorite by a state-wide elementary school poll. At that time it was called the Willow Goldfinch, but now the two main subspecies seen in Washington are called American Goldfinches.

Two winter males with a Pine Siskin. Photo by C. Southwick
The American Goldfinch is the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year: in late winter the male changes to the lemon-yellow breeding plumage that so many of us expect when we think of goldfinches; in late fall their body feathers are exchanged for yellow olive-brown ones, minus the cap. The females stay a drab grey with yellow highlights that are bright in summer, and pale in the winter. Females have two light wing bars on their black wings, versus the single white wing bar that the male displays.

Most goldfinches arrive in our area mid-April and leave mid-October, but there are always a few hardy flocks that stay and grace our presence, roaming from weed-patch to open fields, staying for a while in yards with seed-heads and nyjer thistle seed feeders, and then nomadically moving on to the next source of seeds. American Goldfinches are happiest in abandoned fields and road-sides where they consume vast amounts of thistle¸ dandelion, tree, and other wild seeds.

Two males in April.  Photo by C. Southwick
By using their feet extensively while feeding, American Goldfinches are able to pluck seeds that other birds can’t reach. They are classified as “granivores”, meaning that they are almost totally vegetation, eating only seeds, or maybe a few aphids. They even feed their four-to-six nestlings regurgitated seeds, not insects. This non-protein diet is deadly to Brown-headed Cowbird chicks that may have hatched in an American Goldfinch nest.

Their breeding season starts in July, later than any other finch, timed to use seed fibers, especially thistle down, for their nests, and to have ripe weed and flower seeds for eating.

Bring American Goldfinches into your yard with nyjer thistle seed, black-oil sunflower seeds, and bird baths. Plant zinnias, cosmos, bee balm and perennial flowering plants, and in August leave the flower heads for winter feeding. You may be rewarded with a fly-in by these cheerful Wild Canaries.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager. She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


Janet Way July 27, 2011 at 9:38 AM  

Thanks as always Chris for this informative article and beautiful photographs.


Susan W,  July 27, 2011 at 9:52 PM  

Thank you for giving us a closer view of the flying visitors to our yards. We are fortunate to have so many wild birds living around us, especially for the songs they share. I look forward to learning more from future articles like this. Keep them coming!

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