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Goldfinch of America

Updated on August 9, 2015

Mrs Wright

Photograph taken by her husband
Photograph taken by her husband | Source


Another article in the series looking at north American birds. The article looks at the historical perception of the bird. One such perception comes by means of the description and notes of Mrs Mabel Wright from her book Birdcraft 1895 {not in copyright} . Mrs Wright became president of the Audubon Society of the State of Connecticut in 1898. The beautiful black and white illustrations are by Louis Agassiz Fuertes 1874-1927, an illustrator of some repute.

The goldfinch of America Carduelis tritis

The American goldfinch belongs to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes {perching birds} and placed in the Family Fringillidae and the Genus Carduelis. the bird has a number of common names associated with it such as the wild canary, yellow bird, lettuce bird and thistle bird.

They are resident birds in the main and the male is adorned with his courting suit by the first of May yet studies have revealed it is nearer to the end of June before they actually mate. until then they seem quite content with their lot, flying around in small flocks. When they alight upon a thistle they usually have one of two objectives in mind, they are removing seed for food or the thistle down to aid in the construction of their nests {see nest and eggs below.}

The flight of the goldfinch is wavy, undulating and graceful and the song it utters has the same characteristics, most generally sang while the bird is in flight., and according to Watson a fair interpretation of it is ' per-chic-o-ree per-chic-o'

American goldfinch -male


Mrs Wrights description and accompanying notes.

At the time of Mrs Wright, the bird had the Scientific name of Spinus tristis.

Length 4.80 to 5.20 inches.

Male --body, all but wings, tail and frontlet , a clear gambage yellow. frontlet black. Wings black, varied with white. Tail blackish with spots of white on interior quills. Bill and feet flesh coloured. In September the black frontlet of the male disappears, his colours pale, and he resembles the female and young. In April the spring moult begins, and often is not completed until mid May.

Female ---above brownish olive, below yellowish.

Breeds southward to the middle districts of the United States { to about the Potomac and Ohio rivers, Kansas and California}. Range--North America generally, wintering mostly south of the northern boundary of the USA.

The American goldfinch , known under many titles, is as familiar as the robin, catbird and wren, but its beauty and winning ways always seem new and interesting.. In southern Connecticut, as well as in locations further north and east, it is resident, and is revealed through its various guises of plumage by its typical dipping flight. Its spring song begins early April, though they do not mate until the last half of the month of June. They always choose for their nesting place some large maples that grow by the south west wall of the garden, extending their branches over the waste field, where dandelions, thistles, wild asters and golden rod hold sway.

A little before this time flocks of birds assemble about the garden and every Jack chooses his Jill, or visa versa. There is no more cheerful and confiding garden companion than the goldfinch. Seen , even at a distance, his markings are distinct, his identity complete. You do not have to puzzle or worry, but simply enjoy his society, he does not wish your berries, but helps to remove the dandelion from your lawn, before the wind sows its broadcast, and, all the while you here canary-like music, but wilder and more joyous from behind a twig lattice instead of cage bars.

The black cap gives the male a ferocious look, wholly at variance with his character, while his mate is agreeably feminine and gentle. These birds combine the rich colours we associate with the tropics, and the stout- hearted, cold-enduring New England nature, softened by the most agreeable cosmopolitan manners.

if you wish them to live with you plant sunflowers in your garden. Leave a bit of wild grass somewhere about with its mass of compositae. Coax the wild clematis everywhere it can gain a footing, and in winter, when these joyous birds, gathered in the fields are roving, hard pressed for food, scatter some sweepings of bird seeds about their haunts, repaying in this their silent season, their summer melody.

Snow flake and American goldfinch

Drawn by Louis Agassiz Fuertes
Drawn by Louis Agassiz Fuertes | Source

Illustration of the American Goldfinch

Birds and nature in natural colours 1913 -1914
Birds and nature in natural colours 1913 -1914


" Bit of sunshine taken to wings

Or a spray of golden rod?

On thistle top he sways and sings

Or flung high in the sun, he sings-


'Dita-sweet, sweet-' "

{Ernest Seton Thompson.}

American goldfinch female

Seed eater's par excellence.

This little bird has been described as seed destroyers par excellence. They do, as it is known, take the seeds of lettuce, turnip and hemp, but much more often it is the baneful dandelion, burdock, mullein and other so called pernicious weeds. In winter the seeds of grasses, ragweeds, horse weeds and occasionally sycamore are taken.However, sun flower seeds are a great attraction to them. Watson in his book ' The Birds of Buzzard's Roost', 1907, states " At Buzzard's Roost we grow quite a quantity of sunflowers and it is a most interesting sight to see the goldfinches coming from every direction to feed upon them, it is a constant coming and going"

Other garden plants that will attract the goldfinches to your neighbourhood are coreopsis, zinnias,corn flowers and gaillardias.

" The goldfinch on a thistle head

Stood scattering seeds as he fed"

They are seldom seen on the ground, unless it is to drink and bathe in a stream or puddle in which they wash with great vigour after which they pick up some particles or gravel. Audubon observed that " So fond are they of each others company, that a party passing on the wing will alter course at the calling of a single bird perched upon a tree. this call is uttered with much emphasis;the bird prolongs its usual note without alteration, and as the party approaches, erects its body, and moves it to the right and left as if turning on a pivot, apparently pleased at showing the beauty of its plumage and the elegance of its manners. No sooner as the flock , previously on the wing, alighted, than the whole party plume themselves and perform a little sweet concert"

Its European cousin

The European species is much larger than the American species and its colour varies greatly. It has black and gold wings and red on its head. It also differs in other markings . It was introduced into various localities of New England states during the 1800's.

European goldfinch

British birds and their eggs
British birds and their eggs

Some historical accounts.

Henry Nehrling stated " When walking through one of the most beautiful streets in Houston Texas, on March 29,1880, I heard continually low sweet notes, which were at once familiar to my ear. I looked around in the broad live oaks and the magnificent large flowering magnolias in the street and gardens, but was unable to detect the birds. At last, when looking over the fence into the large , beautiful semi-tropical garden I saw on the grass among the rose bushes and gardenias a large number of goldfinches busily engaged in searching for food. their bills were entirely covered with black soil, and most of them were uttering their low call note-'ce-ree' at frequent intervals"

Dr.T.M. Brewer stated " The goldfinch is to a large extent gregarious and nomadic in its habits, and only for a short portion of the year do these birds separate into pairs for the purpose of reproduction. During at least three fourths of the year they associate in small flocks, and wander about in an irregular and uncertain manner in quest for their food. They are resident throughout the year in New England, and also through out the greater portion of the country. Their presence or absence being regulated to a large extent by the abundance, scarcity or absence of their favorite kinds of food. In winter the taller weeds are their principle means of subsistence. in summer the seeds of the thistle and other plants are sought out by these interesting and busy gleaners"

Sadly, the wild American goldfinch was once regularly trapped and caught for use as a cage bird. These beautiful birds were condemed to confinement behind tiny bars from which they would never fly in the wild again. A reference to this may be found in the Book 'Our Native Song Birds and Beauty' 1893-96.---- " Many of the old males are caught in trap-cages when they arrive from the south. If caught later when they are paired, they die after a few days . These old birds rarely live longer than a year in the cage and most of them die within the course of their first summer or in the fall.In the cage the goldfinch proves to be a delicate bird, and it takes careful nursing in order to succeed with it.------ The goldfinch particularly when in the aviary, very often suffers from diarrhoea and a wasting away of its flesh". The author went on to explain how best to feed the birds in such a condition.

It is my belief that if these lovely birds were left to their liberty the author could have saved himself a lot of time, ink and quill.


Courtesy of the USWFS
Courtesy of the USWFS

Nest eggs and young of the goldfinch.

The nest is usually built near the ground and placed in the stems of a coarse growing weed or in a bush or low growing tree. The outer part of the cup is built compactly of grass, moss or vegetable matter, well woven together and lines with thistle or other plant down. The female builds the nest and it takes her about five days to complete the task. The male attends to her while she carries out the work and cheers her with his song.

Once the nest his completed she lays from four to six white eggs, tinged with blue. Incubation is also carried out by the female , however, during this time the male is very attentive and feeds her. This period will last for about 15 days, and in another 15 days or so the young are strong enough to leave the nest. Both parents will feed the young.

Nest and eggs

The image is of a nest taken in July 1880 from a large thistle beside a spring branch, near a public road.
The image is of a nest taken in July 1880 from a large thistle beside a spring branch, near a public road. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      DDE, thank you, I am glad you enjoyed this hub about a fascinating and beautiful bird. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Goldfinch is so beautiful and small too so interesting and well researched information on this bird I enjoy reading more about different birds

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Aviannovice-Hi Deb thank you for being the first to visit again and for leaving your comment, it is appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The little goldfinch is a wonderful bird. When it appears in the dead of winter, it shows that spring is surely on its way.


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