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 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 upper- tail 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.
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.
Leave the seed heads in your native garden to make a buffet for Goldfinches. They especially love the seeds of Echinacea, and will also use the stalks as a perch.