Noting what visitors appear at a bird feeder in winter can provide some revealing information on the status of the local populations of the feathered creatures hardy enough to remain in the Adirondacks after cold weather becomes established. Aside from the regular flocks of black-capped chickadees, a pair or two of red-breasted nuthatches and blue jays, there may be juncos, redpolls, evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, purple finches and other closely related seed eaters.
This year, at least around my house in Saranac Lake, there has been a healthy number of American goldfinches, which is not surprising considering this past summer’s weather. From mid May through the first week in July, record setting rains soaked the region, and cool temperatures made conditions difficult for birds attempting to incubate eggs and care for a nest full of recently hatched offspring. However, after the 4th of July, the weather improved substantially. Bright skies, warm temperatures and moist soil created ideal growing conditions for plants, which was noted by people who attempted to keep their lawn properly mowed, individuals who maintained flower and vegetable gardens, and those souls that enjoyed harvesting our crops of wild berries.
Unlike all birds, except the cedar waxwing, the goldfinch does not begin the nesting process as soon as the weather becomes favorable in spring. Rather, this colorful wild canary waits until a week or two after the solstice, a time when many species of birds have already raised a brood of nestlings or two, to commence with the chores of nest construction and egg laying. This profound delay in nesting is caused by the strict seed eating diet of the adult goldfinch, along with its nestlings and fledglings. Even though many of nature’s creatures depend heavily on seeds as a primary source of food, most rely on various bugs to feed to their infants, as rapidly growing bodies require the high levels of protein contained in invertebrate matter. From mid May through the end of June, insect populations soar in the Adirondacks, which is the ideal time for attempting to satisfy the unending appetite of hungry nestlings.
A recently hatched goldfinch, however, has evolved the unique ability to synthesize the proteins it requires for tissue formation and growth from compounds contained in an assortment of mature seeds. Consequently, the goldfinch waits until seeds are available throughout the immediate area rather than resort to bugs as an initial source of nourishment. While some seeds begin to form on plants in mid spring, shortly after the leaves emerge on trees, most of these tiny kernels of stored nutrients do not fully mature and attract the attention of a goldfinch until later in the summer.
The plants that bear the greatest abundance of seeds grow in settings that receive plenty of direct sunlight. Forest edges, abandoned fields, beaver meadows, areas beneath electrical transmission lines, ski trails and undisturbed woodland clearing are all places in which the goldfinch can be encountered during much of the year.
As the stems and foliage of weeds, grasses, and other herbaceous plants wither and die in autumn, and seedpods have been picked over several times, the resident goldfinches begin to search other locations for seeds. In most northern regions, villages and towns where well supplied bird feeders are scattered throughout the community are eventually located and become a critical source of food for this, and other birds.
As the goldfinch explores its surroundings for sources of food after the breeding season, it inevitably encounters other goldfinches and eventually forms small to medium size flocks. Even though a neighborhood may contain numerous feeders, flocks of goldfinches continue to search for additional places to eat, and may abandon several locations in favor of new feeding areas. The cold is believed by some naturalists to influence the tendency of a flock to vacate one place in an attempt to find another location that has a more tolerable climate. The nomadic inclination of a flock and its preference for a more temperate winter range cause goldfinches to periodically disappear from a feeder that is well stocked, especially when a mass of arctic air has settled over the Park for several days.
When seen at a feeder, the American goldfinch is easy to recognize, as this pale olive colored bird supports conspicuous white bars across its wing. Like many birds, the goldfinch molts in the autumn and the males attractive yellow and black plumage is replaced with the drab color that allows it to most effectively blend into a background of dried weeds, stems and brush.
In another few weeks, the annual Christmas bird count provides amateur ornithologists with the opportunity to collect information on the birds in their immediate area. This data is combined with sightings throughout the country to form a brief snapshot of the populations of birds in various regions. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to eventually read that during this year’s count the American goldfinch was one of the most commonly seen species in the Northeast, and perhaps here in the Adirondacks, because of the banner summer for seeds.
Photo of a male American Goldfinch in winter plumage by Craig Houghton.