By Tom Dennis
Our second bird in a short series on LBJ’s “little brown jobs” may be somewhat of a shock as many of you await spring migration and the return of the brightly yellow colored male American Goldfinch. Well, surprise, they haven’t left, they’ve remained all winter long, eating your niger (a.k.a. thistle) and sunflower seeds, disguised as an LBJ. Let’s take a closer look and learn how to identify this abundant, gregarious, and sometimes colorful species throughout the year.
American Goldfinches are small birds with an average length of five inches and weighing about one-half ounce. It is the only “cardueline” finch to molt twice per year and during the fall molt the adult males shed all the beautiful golden-yellow feathers they are known for and replace all feathers with buff underparts and olive-brown above. During the entire year females have brown wings and males have black wings with both sexes having white wing bars and white on the edges and underside of the short, notched tail. Some winter birds show light yellow on the face and bib with males having yellow shoulder patches however in our area many winter adults show no yellow at all and are medium tan-gray with an olive tinge that is barely evident. Once the spring molt is complete the LBJ image is gone with males again showing the bright yellow body contrasted with a black cap and wings and females brown with a dull yellow bib. So be watching now in these early spring months as this change begins to take place.
The old genus name Carduelis, is derived from carduus, the Latin word for ‘thistle’ and the species epithet tristis is Latin for ‘sorrowful’. Of course thistle is a favorite food of this almost totally vegetarian species; we now buy niger seed since it’s available commercially and doesn’t germinate in our climate. I can only guess that the species epithet, derived from sorrowful, comes from its song but I prefer to think of the “tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit” flight call as “sweet-swee-swee-sweet” and as being lightly cheerful.
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The American Goldfinch is a widespread species and its year-round range covers essentially all but the southern tier of the lower forty-eight states and in true snowbird fashion some of these birds do spend the winter in the lower states and northern Mexico. They can move a fair distance into the Canadian Provinces for the summer breeding season. The American Goldfinch preferred breeding habitat is in open country where weeds thrive and being granivorous they eat seeds from a wide variety of annual plants such as dandelion, ragweed, teasel, cosmos, and goatsbeard. They also feed on tree buds, sap, and berries. Goldfinches have adapted well to human habitations and thrive around our gardens, orchards, and anywhere that annual flowers and weed abound.
They are one of our latest nesting birds and they begin laying their eggs in early July, when most songbirds are finishing their breeding activities. This late timing assures them of an abundance of nesting materials such as thistle, milkweed, and cattail which are used to line the nests that are built in shrubs and small trees. The seed availability from annual plants and grasses is also abundant during late summer. Although they feed mostly on seeds, insects and spiders are an important nutritional requirement for hatchlings so it’s important to avoid use of pesticides and insecticides especially during late summer and fall when the young are being fed.
If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Pointe, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM. Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, and naturalist.