Goldfinches: An Illustrated Guide to the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
Known as the "wild canary", the resplendent, lemon-yellow males and less colorful females flock to our back yard sanctuary all summer long. These lovely little songbirds entertain us with their feeding frenzy on the Nyjer seeds in our tube feeder and with their acrobatic darting about, hanging upside down, and sudden swooping fly-away in an undulating, roller-coaster pattern.
The American Goldfinch, one of the American backyard bird lover's favorite birds, shows the brightest hues—like most birds—when they are mating (only once a year), which may not be until late summer.
Male, Female, and Juvenile
The male is brilliant yellow during mating, becomes olive colored like the female when not mating. He has a black cap and black wings with flashy white wing bars, and a white rump. She has no black cap. Juveniles resemble the female.
In the winter, both male and female are duller and grayer. But even in winter American Goldfinches can be identified by their conical-shaped bill—orange during mating season, otherwise pink—notched tail, and wing bars. During molts, goldfinches can look ragged and patchy.
Overall size, smaller than a sparrow or Tufted Titmouse: 4½ - 5" (11-13 cm).
Wingspan: 7½ - 8½ (19-22 cm).
Weight: Approx. ½ oz. (11-20 grams).
Their natural habitat is woodland edges, brushy thickets, and weedy grasslands. But they are often found as backyard birds. In winter they gather in flocks and remain in flocks until well past the time other species have formed pairs and are nesting.
Nyjer seed - preferred food of the American Goldfinch
Each year, the female builds a thick and sturdy, well-made nest in a cup-shape of grass, bark, feathers, and plant down (such as thistle and cattail) wedged in the fork of a small sapling or shrub. She lays 4 or 5 pale blue eggs.
Not a bit of help building the nest, the male redeems himself by feeding the female while she incubates the eggs. Both parents tend young birds, who leave the nest in 10 to 16 days.
Because they nest so late, presumably waiting for weed seeds and thistle down to mature, goldfinches are monogamous and usually raise only one brood per year.
Goldfinches preferred food is niger seed, which you will see for sale as Nyjer® seed. Nyjer® is a registered trademark, owned by the Wild Bird Feeding Institute. The name was registered to protect consumers from buying inferior thistle seed which is sometimes confused with niger seed. Niger seed is Imported from India and Ethiopia.
Well adapted to seed eating with their conical shaped bills, goldfinches will also eat other seeds, including sunflower seeds. Generally strict vegetarians, they rarely eat insects but will—of necessity—eat a few insects and berries.
Sounds like "per-chick-o-ree" or "po-ta-to-chip" , followed by call "tee-chi-chi-chi".
Song and Call
Most commonly known for their call "per-chick-o-ree" or "po- ta-to-chip". Other calls: high wiry whistles, and "tee-chi-chi". Other recorded sounds are "peezy-we"," bew-be".
Males sing varying series of twitters and warbles that can be several seconds long. Notes and phrases are also repeated and scrambled randomly. Birds continue to learn new song patters throughout life.
The American Goldfinch is the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The male molt can start as early as April. Within a couple of weeks, he displays his resplendent lemon-yellow brilliance.
Range and Migration
There are four species of goldfinch, three in North America plus the one in Europe that has not been successfully introduced to America.
Range Seeking temperatures no colder than 0 degrees Fahrenheit, the American Goldfinch ranges from the east coast to Colorado, and from southern Canada and to northern Mexico. In the West is the Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria), with a dark back and smaller size, 4½ inches (11 cm).
Migration Partial, moves only far enough south to find food. Moves in small flocks. The range/distribution map (at right) shows the summer range (yellow), the year-round range (green), and the winter range (blue).
Bird Song Challenge
- eNature: BirdCall Challenge
See if you can identify the bird songs in your area.
The oldest known American Goldfinch was reported in May 2007 to be 10 years, 5 months old.
The American Goldfinch is the official state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington.
Lovely in any room, often used in the kitchen.
Attract and Care for Goldfinches
They will feed from almost any kind of bird feeder, but they will consistently hang around column or tube feeders because so many other, more aggressive birds can't get the seeds out of the tiny holes designed for goldfinches.
Protect all birds including goldfinches by cleaning birdbaths and bird feeders regularly and keeping the ground underneath well raked.
Predators of the goldfinch include squirrels, cats, snakes, weasels, and—by one report—Blue Jays.
Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife, Published in collaboration with the American Birding Association, Christopher W. Leahy, Princeton University Press, 2004.
The Armchair Birder, Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds, John Yow, The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Birds in Your Backyard, A Bird Lover's Guide to Creating a Garden Sanctuary, Robert J. Dolezal, The Reader's Digest Association, 2004.
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, John Bull and John Farrand, Jr. , Chanticleer Press, Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.
Field Guide and Audio CDs, Birds of Michigan, Stan Tekiela, Adventure Publications, Inc. 1999.
- American Goldfinches: Avian Conjunctivitis
Check this link for information on how to keep your feeders clean!
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