BIRDING: Bet on goldfinches in these parts |

BIRDING: Bet on goldfinches in these parts

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

There are three species of goldfinches found across North America. These are the American, Lesser and Lawrence’s goldfinch. Goldfinches are sometimes referred to as wild canaries, but are actually in the finch family as their name suggests.

American goldfinches are found in our area throughout the year, where the Lesser goldfinches tend to migrate with some remaining here. Lawrence’s goldfinches are a rare visitor to this area.

Northern populations of the American goldfinch are mostly migratory and southern populations are mostly residential. Banding studies have revealed that some American goldfinches in Ontario migrate more than 1,000 miles to Louisiana. Female American goldfinches will stay further south during the winter than males and younger males will winter further north than adult males. American goldfinches rarely over-winter in northern areas where temperatures fall below 0 degrees F for extended periods.

To stay warm on a cold winter’s night, American goldfinches have been known to burrow under the snow to form a cozy sleeping cavity. They will also roost together in coniferous trees.

American goldfinches have an interesting flight call consisting of four syllables that can be likened to “po-ta-to-chip.” The genus name, Caruelis, is from the Latin word carduus, which means “thistle.” Goldfinches are very dependent on thistles for food and even use thistledown to line their nests. The American goldfinch is one of the latest breeding songbirds, waiting to nest until mid-to-late summer when thistle seeds and down are readily available. When breeding for the first time, young American goldfinches will begin nesting at least two weeks later than experienced adults.

American goldfinches typically have only one brood per year, although veteran females may produce an additional brood. To facilitate a second nesting, a female will leave her original mate in care of the first brood and find a new mate as her partner for the second nesting. Goldfinches usually lay five pale-blue or greenish-blue eggs that will hatch in about 12 days. Nestlings will fledge about 12 days after that. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The female American goldfinch can be fooled by these eggs, and will care for them from incubation through hatching. Few cowbird chicks live longer than three or four days, because of the low amounts of protein found in the vegetarian diet of the goldfinch.

It is estimated that there are three males for every two females in the population of American goldfinches. This imbalanced ratio may be due to the fact that male goldfinches live longer than their female counterparts.

The female American goldfinch chooses the nest site, builds the nest and incubates the eggs all on her own. The male feeds the female on the nest throughout incubation and takes on an ever increasing role in feeding the nestlings as they grow older. American goldfinches can weave their nest so tightly that it will temporarily hold water. American goldfinches attach their nest to supporting twigs with spider web. They prefer to nest in habitats with trees and shrubs and usually place their nest four to 10 feet high, often near a water source.

American goldfinches will use almost any feeder, including ones that require them to hang upside down to eat. Studies have shown their preference is to sit upright at perches on feeders that are hung in trees above head height. American goldfinches are dominated by pine siskin and house finch during the winter and play second fiddle to them at feeders. American Goldfinches are common feeder visitors and prefer thistle (nyjer) and sunflower seeds. American goldfinches are rather acrobatic, often dipping upside down while feeding on weed seeds such as coneflowers and sunflowers.

Unlike many birds, goldfinches molt their body feathers twice a year, in the spring before breeding and after nesting in the fall. During their fall feather molting, American goldfinches grow a new set of feathers that are much denser than their summer plumage. These soft feathers provide an additional layer of insulation to help keep them warm throughout the winter. 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.

Local bird expert Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard birdfeeding experience possible. Email your birdfeeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column in the Free Press.

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