November Bird of the Month: Goldfinches
Bright apostle of midsummer! Herald and poet of sunlit hours!
- W.L. Dawson, The Birds of California, 1923
These burning yellow birds with a little black and white on their coat-flaps look warm above the snow.
- Thoreau, The Journal, December 1858
In some respects, it may seem strange to profile goldfinches in autumn – it is in summer, as Dawson notes, that our two goldfinch species send their high cascading songs pouring out of every neighborhood tree and the American goldfinch shines as our most stunningly yellow bird. But most people with birdfeeders will find that these birds are more abundant and seemingly substantially hungrier during the fall and winter months. And while we may not have snow's cold dormancy to give contrast to our winter goldfinches, they sure seem to eat with an inner fire that seems even more burningly alive amidst the quieter world of autumn.
To speak more prosaically: while our two goldfinch species are both here year-round, they often spend less time at feeders during summer months when their customary flocks break up into more dispersed breeding pairs and natural food is abundant. Now is the time, however, when activity at sunflower and particularly Nyjer feeders reaches its winter heights, a level that will be more or less maintained until March or so. If you aren't already feeding them, read our article on Attracting Goldfinches for the scoop on how to start.
So, our two goldfinches are the American Goldfinch and the Lesser Goldfinch. One is at the top left above and the other is at the top right. Can you tell them apart? Here are some clues:
American Goldfinch in winter
Male Lesser Goldfinch
In winter, both males and females are a dull, grayish yellow. In summer, males are spectacularly bright.
Males have black foreheads in summer, but no caps now.
White undertail coverts (feathers directly under the base of the tail)
In winter, male Lessers are our brightest yellow goldfinches.
Males have a full black cap all year round.
Yellow undertail coverts (Male, female, winter, and summer. Usually.)
American Goldfinches are found across North America. (State bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington. How about a little originality, guys?)
These birds have an easily distinguished flight call consisting of four fast, but even and distinct syllables that has been likened to “po-ta-to-chip” or "per-chick-a-ree." Go listen to it.
The American Goldfinch is one of the latest breeding songbirds, waiting to nest until thistle seeds and down are readily available. This is more pronounced in the East, but in California they still are one of our later-nesting songbirds, with a lot of nesting occurring from June to August. Both of our goldfinches build open nests in trees and will not use houses.
The color of the legs, feet and bill of the American Goldfinch change with each feather molt. In winter plumage, their legs, feet and bill are dark grayish brown. In breeding plumage they change to a buffy yellow orange color.
|Gentle, trustful, dainty, musical, inoffensive, sociable, and
abundant - these adjectives certainly entitle their subject to the fullest recognition on the part of Californians.
– W.L. Dawson on the Lesser Goldfinch in Birds of California, 1923
A Western bird, unlike the continent-ranging American Goldfinch.
Call is a clear, high, somewhat plaintive tee-yee.
In the Southwest, the common subspecies of Lesser Goldfinch has a black back. These "black-backs" are rarely seen here among our local "green-backs."
Lesser Goldfinches will imitate other birds in their rapid, complex songs.
The genus name shared by both of our goldfinches, Carduelis, is from the Latin word carduus, which means “thistle.” Their light weight and clinging ability makes goldfinches well suited to bypassing the spiny leaves and flowers of thistles to extract seeds.
Nyjer seed, also referred to as thistle, is the classic food for a goldfinch-specific feeding station, although they will also happily eat sunflower chips, the main ingredient in our No-Mess Blend. The advantage of offering Nyjer is that it won't generally attract squirrels or larger birds like jays; the main downside is that in many areas you might not attract much of anything during the summer months when goldfinches aren't visiting feeders much. If you aren't already feeding goldfinches, it's very easy to get started: ready-to-hang, pre-filled "finch socks" can be had for a few dollars, or there are a variety of more durable feeders available. For a complete rundown on the art of goldfinch attracting, read our Attracting Goldfinches article.
To read more pages like this, visit our Bird of the Month Archive.