The American Goldfinch
By Tait Johansson
The American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is one of our
most familiar birds, especially to
those who maintain bird feeders.
This common inhabitant of shrubby fields, the edges of woods, and suburban areas
is present here in southern New York year-round, often frequenting feeders with
sunflower or “nyjer” seeds.
In spring through autumn, the male goldfinch is a strikingly colorful bird.
Except for a black cap, wings and tail, a white wing bar and under- and
uppertail coverts, the male’s plumage is a bright yellow. The bill, legs and
feet are pinkish-orange. The female’s underparts are a dull yellow, the head and
back are yellowish brown; the tail is blackish, and the wing has two buffy bars;
undertail coverts are white. Her bill, legs and feet are a dull pink. In winter,
both sexes have a duller version of the female’s plumage.
The goldfinch’s vocalizations include a piping three to four note call given
throughout the year (usually during its undulating flight), often rendered as
“potato-chip!” In spring and summer, the male’s song consists of a long series
of bouncy, bubbly notes.
The main food is seeds, though insects are sometimes added to the diet. Even the
young are primarily fed seeds, especially thistle seeds, which accounts for the
fact that this species is one of our latest nesters. Unlike most birds in our
area, which typically nest May through June, goldfinches start nesting only in
July and continue sometimes into September. This assures a steady supply of the
necessary seeds, few of which are ripe earlier in the summer. The down of
thistles is also used to line the small, compact nest. One interesting effect of
the nestlings’ diet is that, while our local brood parasite, the Brown-headed
Cowbird (Molothrus ater), will lay its eggs in goldfinch nests to be
raised by the parent goldfinches, the young usually die, since young cowbirds
need more insect food than goldfinches bring their nestlings.
Photos Courtesy of and Copyright © by
Dick Budnik Photography
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