Anything that brings a splash of color to the winter woods is a welcome sight. Much as I enjoy the stark black and white world of winter, sometimes it just needs a little something extra, and that extra something most often comes in the form of a bright and colorful bird, like the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).
Goldfinches are, as you no doubt know, small finches native to North America. Like many songbirds, the females are rather drab in appearance, sporting olive-green camos — all the better to hide in the trees, my dear. The males, however, are Crayolas on the wing. My favorite crayon when I was a kid was lemon yellow, and to my mind this will always be the color of the male goldfinch.
In the spring, when it’s time to find a mate, the males change into their most colorful suits: lemon yellow vests and breeches, with black shirtsleeves and smart black caps. As with evening grosbeaks, it is a stunning combination: yellow and black. Not everyone can pull it off, but the goldfinch and grosbeak can. To go with this outfit, the birds also develop a bright orange beak. Most of the year the beak is pink, but just in time for breeding it is orange — perhaps it is a better combination with the yellow suit than pink would be. But the beak is more than just eye candy: it is a tool specially designed to access the foods that make up the majority of this bird’s diet.
Like any good bird, the goldfinch eats a variety of foods, from tree buds to insects, even maple sap, but the bulk of its diet is seeds: thistle, teasel, sunflower, cosmos, coneflower, bee balm, ragweed, dandelion, etc. By having a pointy, conical beak, these birds can easily extract seeds from the flower heads of many a roadside, garden and field plant.
This is one reason why goldfinches are easily attracted to places where people live. Unlike many birds, the goldfinch prefers open areas full of “weeds,” so they actually benefit from deforestation and development. Roadsides, fields, meadows, gardens – all these places have great potential to be prime dining spots for goldfinches. Even a basic lawn will attract these colorful birds, unless you subscribe to the perfect-green-lawn-with-nothing-but-grass model of lawn care. I remember as a kid looking at a lawn full of dandelions only to see some of these brilliant flowers take wing and fly away.
One of the first things I ever learned about the goldfinch is that it is one of the latest-nesting birds we have (I think only the cedar waxwing is known to nest later). One of the reasons it nests so late in the season is because it uses thistle down to line its nest, and thistles haven’t gone to seed yet in May and June (or, maybe it uses the thistle down because it nests so late — another example of the chicken and the egg?). Additionally (and probably the real reason it nests so late in the season), because the bulk of its diet is made up of seeds, the goldfinch must put off having a brood of hungry mouths to feed until there is enough food to go around.
Apparently it is this preference for seeds over insects that makes the goldfinch a poor choice for foster parenting. Brown-headed cowbirds, native to the prairies, are nest parasites: they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, abandoning their offspring to the good-will of former neighbors. Goldfinches, however, have proven to be a poor choice for nest parasitism, for not only do they nest late in the season, but the diet they feed their young is not appropriate for young cowbirds, which are primarily insectivorous; few, if any, survive.
As the seasons wind down and the earth settles itself for winter, goldfinches molt once more, exchanging their party clothes for outfits of more subtle shades. It wouldn’t do to stand out in the middle of winter, when all you have to do is find enough food to eat and live ‘til the following spring, when you once more take on the mantle of responsibility to send your genes into the future. Not all goldfinches turn completely dull for the winter, though. We certainly see plenty around here that are yellow enough to brighten up any day.
Goldfinches are rather social birds, preferring to hang out with their friends and relatives. Often, especially in winter, you will find goldfinches in mixed flocks with pine siskins, another small finch that to the untrained eye looks much like a female goldfinch. If you look carefully, though, you’ll notice that the siskin is smaller, more streaked in appearance, and has a smaller, very pointy beak.
If you want to practically guarantee seeing goldfinches in winter, put out some feeders. They’ll happily eat sunflower seeds, but they also like nyjer (formerly called thistle, but technically, these are seeds from a daisy-like plant from Africa). If you want to have some fun with goldfinches, get one of those feeders that has the seed ports below the perches – goldfinches will happily hang upside-down while eating. I’ve even watched them cling upside-down to hummingbird feeders to sip water from the ant traps!
You will know you have goldfinches in your neighborhood if you see a flock of birds fly by, their flight full of undulating dips, calling “potato-chip, potato-chip, potato-chip” as they go. Then rush right home and fill your feeders. Soon you’ll have splashes of yellow coloring your winter landscape. And if you don’t see them right away, don’t worry. Goldfinches are rather nomadic, so they’ll probably be feeding at other feeders in the neighborhood. Be patient. Put out the food — they will come.
Photo of American Goldfinch by Wayne Hoch.
This essay first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack on Dec. 30, 2009.