There are dozens of adjectives to describe the American goldfinch and his British counterpart.
Lively. Cheerful. Perky. Energetic. Animated. Athletic. Bouncy. Take your pick or add more. The goldfinch is wonderful to watch, either in the wild or as a back yard resident.
The goldfinch was originally described in 1758 as a small bird from four to six inches long with a 7.5 to 8.7 inch wingspan.
The beak is small, cone-shaped and a pinkish color. The design of the beak makes it perfect for extracting seeds from flower heads, such as sunflowers.
The American goldfinches are songbirds that go through two molts per year, which is very unusual. The pink beak mentioned above turns bright orange during the molting.
Goldfinches are rather drab in the winter, a dull green/brown with little to no colorful ornamentation. That shifts dramatically in the spring, however, when the male must begin concentrating on attracting a lady. The “men” turn into quick-change artists, donning bright yellow feathers, black and white wings and a black cap. That, combined with its melodious song, is definitely enough to turn the girls’ heads.
The Goldfinch Family
The goldfinch family is extensive.
The two primary branches are the American branch and the British branch.
The British version has a strong tendency to form flocks of around 40 birds, sometimes more. Many of these will make a winter migration as far south as Spain. For the American goldfinch, the migration route during the breeding season is from mid-Alberta to North Carolina. During the winter, the pattern changes; running from just south of the Canada-U.S. border to Mexico
Goldfinches, both American and British, are frequently raised in captivity. Their breeding is sometimes manipulated, crossing a male goldfinch on a female canary. The goal is to make the finch’s already lovely song even more melodious, with a broader repertoire of sounds. For this reason, some people refer to the sweetly singing birds as wild canaries, which is not correct.
- Gray-crowned Rosy
- Pine Grosbeak
- Purple Finch
- Cassin’s Finch
- House Finch
- Red Crossbill
- White-winged Crossbill
- Common Redpoll
- Hoary Redpoll
- Pine Siskin
- Lesser Goldfinch
- Evening Grosbeak
What Do Goldfinches Eat?
The goldfinch is a granivore, which is a big word for telling interested people that the little bird is a seed-eating, strict vegetarian. Actually, it’s one of the strictest vegetarians in the entire bird world. It’s especially adapted to eat directly from seedheads. Its tools include the earlier mentioned cone-shaped beak and its agile feet, which allow it to grip stems while pulling out seeds.
The little bird actually depends on its feet a great deal. It uses them to hang from seedheads since, in this position, it’s easier for him to reach the seeds.
The feet are so important that they are actually responsible for increasing the goldfinch’s chances for survival. The feet frequently combine with the bird’s innate agility, allowing him to pull with his beak the catkins (very slim flower clusters shaped like cylinders) hanging from birch and alder trees. He then wraps his toes around the catkin, holding it against the branch for easier eating.
This type of food source is not accessible to other birds, which means the goldfinch increases his available dietary resources.
Another new, fancy-sounding word describes the goldfinch as a diurnal feeder. This simply means the bird feeds every day during daylight hours; a recurring, daily cycle.
The goldfinch incorporates a wide variety of annual plants, weeds, grasses and trees into its diet. Thistle, teasel, dandelion, ragweed, mullein, cosmos, goatsbeard, sunflower and alder. Those are all favorites but it also likes to add tree buds, maple sap and berries. Just a few bites of something sweet to keep life interesting.
It’s this very diversity that increases the goldfinch’s chances of survival through the winter months. It also helps them to fulfill their average age expectancy of three to six years. The maximum recorded age is 11 years.
The Goldfinches’ Preferred Geography
Because of its diet preferences, the goldfinch instinctively gravitates toward open country such as fields, meadows, flood plains, roadsides, orchards and gardens. It also likes woodlands and secondary growth areas.
The goldfinch is a distance traveler despite its small body mass. Its summer breeding range extends from East Coast to West Coast in North America. Its northern boundary is Saskatchewan and then south to North Carolina on the east coast. It doesn’t object to going all the way to northern California on the west Coast.
By comparison, the goldfinch likes to keep its migratory routes shorter. It puts off relocation until the temperatures start to dip and food supplies begin running low. Then, a small flock packs its communal bag and heads into the southern regions of Canada, the United States and even parts of Mexico.
It’s interesting to watch these flocks fly over. They have a very distinctive flying technique; almost a rise and fall that looks like a wave. It consists of a wing flap and then a glide.
Another interesting fact about the American goldfinch is that attempts to introduce it into Bermuda in the 19th century and to Tahiti in 1938 both failed. The reason for the failure was not determined.
Goldfinches in the Backyard
The goldfinch is one of the easiest species in the entire bird world to attract to yards.
For one thing, goldfinches are not afraid of humans and are perfectly willing to explore and to investigate.
Secondly, human activity doesn’t bother them. Someone working in a flower bed or a garden doesn’t cause the goldfinch undue stress. It’s more like a “live and let live” attitude.
Third, the goldfinch is not a diva and does not demand special accommodations. For example, any type of feeder is satisfactory as long as it’s kept filled. Stuff it with Nyjer thistle seed and the goldfinch will probably become a friend for life. Sunflower hearts are another favorite. The birds will also feed from the ground.
One of the most convenient aspects of attracting goldfinches is that a large portion of their diets is nothing more than the flowers many people plant in their yards every spring and summer. The list includes zinnias, cosmos, bee balm and globe thistle. All these varieties produce seed heads, which are especially attractive to the goldfinches. Unlike some other birds, human feeding of goldfinches is not detrimental to humans or to the birds.
The list of flowers luring goldfinches doesn’t stop with the above. It also includes sunflowers, coreopsis, daisies, marigolds, poppies, sweet gum, birch, hemlock and purple coneflowers. Several of these are perennials, which means they return on their own year after year.
One way to entice the goldfinch to remain in the yard the entire year is to put out nesting materials for them. Any soft material such as cotton fiber works great. Be sure the birds can reach the material easily and be sure to place it in front of a house window that’s easy for you to access. Pull up a comfortable chair and watch as the birds fly in and out all day, grabbing one fiber at a time and flapping off with it to their home-building site.
Water is critical for the backyard Goldfinch, especially during the winter. The birds depend on it for drinking, and also for bathing and keeping their feathers clean. This is crucial during the winter, because it’s water that allows them to sustain their thermal protective layers of down. Otherwise they could freeze.
Goldfinches are a popular, plentiful little bird that can provide hours of fun for the humans who spend time watching them.
They are gregarious, enjoying the company of other goldfinches as well as other species.
A number of states claim them as their own. It’s the official state bird of Iowa and New Jersey, where it’s referred to as the Eastern Goldfinch.
In 1951, the goldfinch was also declared the state bird of Washington, chosen by the state’s schoolchildren. There, it’s called the Willow Goldfinch.
As strange as it seems, the goldfinch has actually benefited from the human onslaught of deforestation. Clearing the trees leaves behind open areas filled with a variety of weeds loved by the goldfinches. So, while most other species are harmed by the process, the goldfinch finds another primary food source.
The goldfinch does have predators. There are snakes, weasels, squirrels, hawks and cats. There are also blue jays which have a penchant for destroying goldfinch eggs and/or killing the hatched babies. The goldfinch seldom displays any aggressive behavior toward these enemies, but they do sound a well-developed alarm system.
Step carefully the next time you hear a shrill, excited calling of several birds at the same time since there’s likely to be a snake in the immediate vicinity.