Do you see 3 birds in the photo above? A darker-colored female American goldfinch to the far left isn’t easy to spot. A yellow male goldfinch is center left. I suspect that I saw only this bird as I snapped the photo. One male goldfinch to the far right is half out of the picture. Obviously, I hadn’t noticed its presence. Below is a closer view of the female and male. The female on the left is still hard to see.
Female American goldfinches are rusty brown to dull olive gold in color, depending on the season. They do not sport a black patch on the forehead as do breeding males. One reason American goldfinches are unique is that they go through 2 molts every year, whereas other members of their family have only 1 molt. In the fall molt, male goldfinches exchange their flashy yellow for an appearance more like that of the females. In the spring molt, males turn yellow and females more olive gold. Juveniles resemble the females.
I think the goldfinch in the photo above is a juvenile because of its appealing youthful appearance. The photo was taken in late July. American goldfinches are late nesters, from late June to early August in most areas, probably because they are almost exclusively seedeaters, which is another of their unique characteristics. Breeding later in the summer assures that there will be adequate seed to nurture their young. Incubation takes 12-14 days. The young leave the nest 11-17 days after hatching. So it’s possible that a fledgling might be sampling chicory seeds all by himself by July 23. More likely he is just getting used to life beyond the nest. Seeds are regurgitated by the parents into the mouths of young birds, making the seeds more palatable. Young goldfinches are still fed by their parents for 3 weeks or more after they leave the nest.
Nests are cup-shaped, built by the female, made from plant fibers, lined with plant down, and secured to supporting branches using spider silk. Thistle down for lining nests is often mentioned, as is thistle seed as food for goldfinches. I’ve been trying to eradicate bull thistles from my garden, so few of them reach the flowering stage when down would be available, but milkweed in my wildflower patch was producing its down in July. Perhaps the female used that. I did not find a nest, which is reportedly all of 3″ across and 2″-4.5″ high. Goldfinches often build nests in deciduous shrubs or conifers. Forsythia bushes and small pine trees are close by the wildflower patch, so this may have created a desirable environment for starting a goldfinch family.
The photos above give some idea of the wildflowers in my July garden. Chicory (Cichorium intybus), bee balm (Monarda), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are visible. I have not seen goldfinches on the bee balm, but they surely enjoy the seeds of chicory and purple coneflowers. Coneflowers supply seeds through late summer. Sunflower seeds are also available later in the season.
Asters are often mentioned as a source of food for goldfinches. There are asters in my fall garden, but I have not seen goldfinches feeding on them. It’s true that goldfinches are much less obvious after molting in the fall. They are probably still with me. I just don’t notice them as much. They join small flocks after breeding season and may migrate far enough south to find food. A few stay the winter in New Jersey, according to Birds of New Jersey field guide. American goldfinches are the state bird of New Jersey, as well as Iowa and Washington State. I guess that’s another reason they are unique.
I stopped using bird feeders this spring after finding a house finch with eye disease caused by a bacterial parasite Mycoplasma gallisepticum. All finches are susceptible to this disease, which probably spreads through contact with other finches either at feeders or on the ground under feeders. Care should be taken to clean feeders thoroughly and rake ground beneath feeders. After seeing the pathetic little house finch trying to navigate to find food and water, I couldn’t trust myself to keep the area free from disease, so I took the feeders down.
For more information on the house finch eye disease, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site and look up house finches.
I miss seeing many of the feeders birds. Chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers in particular. I called them the jet set of my feeder birds. This winter, I know I will miss watching the dark-eyed juncos under the feeders. Actually, the jet-setters are still around. I hear the tufted titmice in particular from time to time, but they are harder to spot and to photograph without the feeders to draw them in.
There are feeder birds I don’t miss so much. Not because they are not all interesting in their own ways, but because there get to be too many of them at the feeders. House sparrows, house finches, starlings, grackles, mourning doves, pigeons, and the like. They are still around as well, just in more manageable numbers.
One good argument for maintaining backyard feeders is that suburban feeders help feeder birds meet the challenges of urbanization, agribusiness, and climate change. One good argument against feeders is that they are really for our own narcissistic enjoyment of seeing and photographing birds. There’s truth in both sides. After seeing that poor little house finch with eye disease, I didn’t find much pleasure in the feeders. I am trying each year to add more native shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses to my small suburban garden. Perhaps in that way I can still help the birds and enjoy their presence without causing harm.
But that was a digression. Coming back to the topic of this post, American goldfinches are common birds with some unique characteristics. They molt twice a year with males changing colors dramatically. They breed later than most songbirds. They are seedeaters almost exclusively, making them one of the bird world’s strictest vegetarians. According to the American Breeding Bird Survey, American goldfinches are numerous, although their population declined somewhat between 1966 and 2014. Whenever I hear a statistic like that, I think of passenger pigeons. But with a global breeding population of 42 million, according to Partners in Flight, I won’t worry too much yet. If I continue to privilege native plant species with lots of seeds in my garden, perhaps American goldfinches will come back to the wildflower patch for future breeding seasons. If they do, I will write a post about them.