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Home & Garden: Goldfinches are everywhere!

Larry Collins
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

They are everywhere!

Quite a few people have told me they have lots of goldfinches; and here I am with nary a one. Well, that has changed. A few weeks ago they found me. Yes, lots of them! Most have been the Lesser Goldfinches with a few American Goldfinches thrown in.

Goldfinches are found across North America. The three species include the American, Lesser, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Sometimes referred to as wild canaries, they are actually in the finch family as their name suggests. We primarily have the American and Lesser in this area. They are easy to tell apart. In the summer, the American has a bright yellow chest and back with black- and white-striped wings. They have the same general coloring in the winter, but the color is much more subdued. The Lesser Goldfinch has the same yellow chest, but their back has a dark, almost greenish tint to it. They, too, are not as colorful during the winter.

Northern populations of goldfinches are mostly migratory, and southern populations are mostly residential. Banding studies have revealed that some goldfinches in Ontario migrate more than 1,000 miles to Louisiana. Goldfinches rarely over-winter in northern areas where temperatures fall below zero for extended periods. Residential flocks of goldfinches roam widely between food supplies during the winter and have been recorded moving more than four miles between multiple feeding stations in a single day. Other records show movements of more than 30 miles in a single winter.

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 (also known as Nyjer) for food and even use thistledown to line their nests.

The goldfinch is one of the latest breeding songbirds, waiting to nest until mid-to-late summer when thistle seeds and down are readily available. They 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 male as her partner for the second nesting.

Unlike many birds, the goldfinch molts all its body feathers each spring. This molt requires a large amount of nutrients and energy, which probably diminishes their ability to nest earlier in the season. In fact goldfinches sometimes molt their body feathers twice a year, in the spring before breeding and after nesting in the fall.

The female 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. Goldfinches attach their nest to supporting twigs with spider webs and can weave their nest so tightly that it will temporarily hold water.

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. Young goldfinches are dependent on their parents for at least three weeks after fledging. Be sure to watch and listen for their energetic begging as they harass their parents for food at your feeders.

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. I, however, use a mesh screen feeder and they seem perfectly happy hanging any direction on it while eating. They are dominated by Pine Siskin and House Finch (both of which are also thistle eaters) during the winter and play second fiddle to them at feeders.

They are common feeder visitors, preferring thistle and sunflower seeds, and can be rather acrobatic, often dipping upside down while feeding on weed seeds such as coneflowers and sunflowers.

To stay warm on a cold winter’s night, goldfinches have been known to burrow under the snow to form a cozy sleeping cavity. They will also roost together in coniferous trees. During their fall feather molting, goldfinches grow a new set of feathers that are much more dense than their summer plumage. These soft feathers provide an additional layer of insulation to help keep them warm throughout the winter.

It is fun to look out and see a bird that is other than the dull coloring of a sparrow. Enjoy these active and tiny birds!

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50.


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