Carduelis tristis, the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington, can be recognized by its undulating flight pattern and melodious voice. This small songbird measures only about 5 inches long and weighs between 1/3 and 1/2 ounce. Both sexes makes a dramatic change in color between winter and summer. During their molting time between seasons, goldfinches can look quite ragged and patchy.
Males wear feathers of a bright lemon yellow during summer breeding season, with a black face and crown, black wings and tail, and two pale wing bars. The summer female is a bright olive yellow (left). Her wings are similar to the male, but more smoky in color. In winter, the male takes on colors very much like the summer female, while females take on an even more subdued olive-buff color. Like other finches, the American goldfinch has a short, conical bill that makes the perfect tool for extracting seeds from plants.
The American goldfinch is one of the most common birds to visit gardens, and can be found throughout much of North America, except for heavily forested areas. These birds prefer weedy grasslands and cultivated areas like backyards and orchards. They nest around open deciduous shrubs. Although they migrate seasonally, they will often remain in areas with an abundant food supply.
Goldfinches band together in flocks of their own kind year-round, and often associate with pine siskins and common redpolls in winter flocks. Although they visit feeders at all times of year, they appear in the greatest numbers during the cold months. Agile and acrobatic, these tiny birds can easily perch upside down to pry seed from a sunflower head or a feeder.
Nesting and Young
Goldfinch pairs breed much later in the season than most American songbirds. Nesting largely occurs in the latter part of July and beginning of August. The fact that thistledown (right), the goldfinch’s favorite nest lining material, becomes available at the same time nesting begins is likely no coincidence, according to scientists. It’s possible that the appearance of thistle flowers signals the availability of abundant seeds for feeding young, thus triggering production of the birds’ reproductive hormones.
The female alone builds the nest, although the male accompanies her as she collects materials. She also performs almost all the incubation duties for a clutch that usually consists of four to six eggs, while the male brings her food. By the time the babies reach the age of only twelve days old, they are mature enough to leave the nest. They remain reliant on their parents for feeding for another few weeks, however. Re-nesting in the same season is uncommon, and most goldfinches are done with chick-rearing by late August. Both males and females gradually take on a less vivid appearance, adopting the duller coloring they wear throughout the winter.
The American goldfinch produces a variety of different sounds. The most commonly heard, the contact call, is short and high-pitched, often made in mid-flight. (Some think it sounds like “po-ta-to chip”.) Aggression or chasing may be accompanied by a harsh, raspy threat call. Adult goldfinches emit an alarm call that sounds like “bay-bee” if they feel their nest is threatened. Males produce a “tee-yee” courtship call that may be followed by long, pleasant warbling song. Females produce a special feeding call for the male, and soon after hatching, goldfinch chicks begin emitting a series of high-frequency begging calls.
Feeding and Attracting
Many common garden plants, including zinnias, cosmos, catmint, coneflowers and sunflowers, produce seeds that attract the goldfinch. Among their native plant favorites are thistles and common milkweed. They love bathing, and are attracted to low, shallow dish-style birdbaths.
American goldfinches eat plant seeds almost exclusively. In winter when plants are covered with snow, they rely on tree seeds and catkins. For this reason, these birds are easily lured to backyard feeders, with their favorite food being thistle or nyjer seed, or small sunflower pieces. Specialized finch socks and tube feeders with multiple feeding ports can help accommodate large flocks of these birds.
Thumbnail photo (male goldfinch) and female goldfinch by Kelly Colgan Azar
Female collecting thistledown by Kenneth Cole Schneider
Goldfinches at feeder by brady.macdonald
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch by Alex L.A. Middleton; Stackpole Books; 1998