Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Attracting American Goldfinches to your backyard

A pair of goldfinches in summer can really brighten up your bird feeder!

I can't believe it's been over a year since I've seen one! Here in San Diego I'm at the southwestern edge of their range. In fact, I only saw one pair of birds in January 2019. I had two sightings in 2017, yet I had a dozen sightings in San Diego in 2018.

I looked at range maps for American Goldfinch online. Boy, are there a bunch of errors concerning the breeding range in the West! I wonder why? Maps in the Sibley and National Geographic guides are accurate.

Many online maps erroneously show birds in winter only in the West. Yet they are common breeding birds in western Oregon, coastal and the Central Valley of California. Many maps only show birds in these locations in the winter or non-breeding season. Here's an accurate breeding season map from eBird.

This page is an overview of American Goldfinches. I will have links to more in-depth pages to topics including identification, courtship and nesting, range and habitat, and diet and foods you can offer to attract them to your backyard.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on a stick
Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

American Goldfinch overview


American Goldfinches are tiny birds. Males in breeding plumage are bright lemon yellow with black wings, tail, and forehead. They have sweet lilting calls as the fly over with bounding flight. They have a complicated sweet song in spring.

Happily, they are readily attracted to backyard feeders and bird baths. They eat small seeds, including Niger seed in special "thistle" feeders.

Identification


American Goldfinches measure 4-1/2 to 5 inches in length, from bill tip to tail tip. That's tiny! They have a wingspan of 7-1/2 to 8-1/2 inches.

These birds are rather stocky. Their head is large and merges into the body in an almost neckless appearance. The long white tail coverts accentuate the short forked tail. The small conical bill is rather thin for a seed eating bird.

Breeding males are bright lemon yellow. The wing and tail feathers are black with white wing edges forming two wide white wing bars. The forehead is black. Both the upper and under tail coverts are white. The legs and feet are brownish pink. The pink bill is short, wide at the base and sharply pointed.

In later in fall the white edges on the wing and tail feathers wear away. Males then appear to have solid dull black wings with only two thin wing bars.

In winter males are pale tan with yellow mostly restricted to the head. The wings are renewed to jet black with many wide white edges to them. The outer edges on the tail feathers are also lined with white.

Females in breeding plumage are duller yellow below with a greenish cast to the back and upper parts. The black wings have narrower white wing bars than the males.

Immatures and winter females are gray-tan with black wings and tail. Immatures in fall show broad tan wing bar. By winter the wing bars are worn thinner and are a dull white color. Thus they match the female in plumage.

During most of the year American Goldfinches travel in small family groups or flocks. In late fall and early winter flocks of hundreds can form in weedy fields.

Goldfinches feed on the ground or cling to stalks to reach seed heads of grasses and weeds. They hold onto plant stalks acrobatically.

When they fly away, American Goldfinches give a lilting chipping call of about 4 syllables. The call is described as per-chik-o-ree. To many people this sounds more like po-ta-to-chip!

The song is a long complicated lilting trills and chip notes.

The undulating and strongly bounding flight of goldfinches is a quick identification mark when combined with the tiny size and fairly long wings and short tail.

For more in-depth coverage of American Goldfinch identification and how to tell them apart from similar species, please read my article: What do American Goldfinches look like?

Range and habitat


American Goldfinches breed across the northern two-thirds of the United States and southern Canada. Birds move out of Canada and the northern Great Plains in winter. In winter some birds move to the southern United States and northern and mid-eastern Mexico.

Many birds stay for winter where the weather is mild. Others migrate a short distance southward to find warmer weather.

American Goldfinches are found in weedy open habitats with shrubby trees for nesting. Birds are very common for a few years in regenerating clear cuts. When the trees block out the sun and bushes and weeds no longer grow on the forest floor, goldfinches move out.

These goldfinches are also common in city park and backyard habitats.

For more in-depth information on the range and habitat of American Goldfinches, please read my article: Where do American Goldfinches live?

Diet


American Goldfinches eat almost exclusively seeds. While many seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects, not so goldfinches.

The favorite seeds that American Goldfinches love to eat are composites, including thistles, sunflowers, and asters. You may see them feeding acrobatically on dandelions in your yard.

They also eat tree seeds from such trees as birch and sweet gum.

At your bird feeder there are two seeds these birds love. American Goldfinches are really attracted to black oil sunflower seeds and Niger seed. They will eat most small seeds from all types of feeders. A "finch feeder" or "thistle sock" with Niger seed attracts goldfinches and siskins almost exclusively, sometimes House Finches.

American Goldfinches are very attracted to water in bird baths, fountains, and drippers.

For more in-depth information on what these goldfinches eat, and feeders to attract them to your yard, please read my article: What do American Goldfinches eat?

Nesting and reproduction


American Goldfinches are usually monogamous and raise one batch of young each season. Occasionally, however, a female will leave the older nestlings in the care of her mate. She then may seek out another male in which to raise another family of young.

Males start singing in spring. Mating and nesting waits until mid-summer when there are many weed seeds and thistle seeds to feed the young.

The female builds the cup-shaped nest of tightly woven plant fibers. It is bound with spider silk. She lines the nest with the fluff of thistle seeds and similar material.

The female American Goldfinch usually chooses a sapling or other type of small tree or shrub in which to build her nest. The nest is built in the crotch of the branches often under a clump of leaves. The nest height is usually low, from 3 to 10 feet above the ground.

The female lays 2-7 eggs. These are pale bluish, sometimes with spots on the large end. Incubation by the female lasts 12-14 days. Once the eggs hatch the nestlings remain in the nest for another 11-17 days. Nestlings hatch naked and helpless.

For more in-depth information on the courtship and nesting of American Goldfinches,  read my article: Where do American Goldfinches like to nest?


Here's a video on American Goldfinch facts.



Fun facts about American Goldfinches


The scientific name of the American Goldfinch is Spinus tristis. The word spinus is Greek and refers to a type of bird, but no one today knows exactly which one! The word tristis means sad. Some people think the calls are sad. That is certainly true of the Lesser Goldfinch's downslurred call. But most of the American Goldfinch's calls I'd term happy!

Formerly, the scientific genus name was Carduelis. This word means thistle, a favorite food of all goldfinches.

American Goldfinches do not participate in the mobbing of predatory hawks as do many other small birds.

A group of goldfinches is called a "charm."

Many people call American Goldfinches "wild canaries." No wonder, they do look much like the common cage bird, the canary. The real canaries are found in the Macaronesian Islands, including the smaller group of Canary Islands off North Africa.

The nest of American Goldfinches is woven so tightly it may hold rain water!

In most of their range American Goldfinches nest very late--July and August. This is so they can feed the seeds of thistles and milkweed to their nestlings.

This is the State Bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington State.

You may see these birds eating upside down at your tube feeder!

American Goldfinches are the only finches to molt body plumage in both spring and fall, changing their appearance in summer and winter.

American Goldfinches have lived in the wild to at least 8 years and 10 months. One bird in captivity lived to be 13 years old.

References


Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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