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Fighting Male Goldfinches

Dear Bird Folks,

I have noticed that most of my feeder birds have finished nesting and many adults are feeding young birds at my feeder. If all the birds are done nesting, why are the male goldfinches still fighting? Shouldn’t they be forming their winter flocks instead of fighting?

Hildie, Eastham


Good Observation, Hildie,

The male goldfinches are, indeed, defending their territory because, believe it or not, they are just getting ready to nest. The American Goldfinches are the yuppies of the bird world. All spring long while all the other birds are building nests and raising families, the goldfinches are enjoying life.

The goldfinch couple had it made – no kids, two incomes, plenty of money, and gold. They ate out every night, traveled anytime, played tennis, stayed out late and partied big time, with no worries at all. Then they blew it. Sometime in late July, one of them, probably the female, started to feel her biological clock ticking. With only a few weeks left in the season, she announces that she feels her life is incomplete and she needs to have a family.

The male, of course, hates the idea. He’s having the best summer of his life. His gold color really came in good this year. He’s in great shape, but most importantly, he lives in a swell neighborhood with all of his buddies. The last thing he wants to do is have to defend a territory and start fighting with all his friends.

But the females has that sweet little song, and he knows that it’s only a matter of time until the best summer of his life will be over. No more poker games with his buddies, for soon he’ll be screaming at his former friends to stay off his turf. And instead of bowling on the weekends, he’ll have to spend all of his waking hours searching for food.

One of the biggest factors as to when birds breed is availability of food. Most birds nest in the spring because that’s when bugs are most abundant. Goldfinches, however, are not big insect eaters, they eat mostly seeds. Their breeding cycle is later in the summer when many wildflowers have gone to seed. Goldfinches time their nesting so their babies are hatching out just as plants like thistle are going to seed. (Don’t confuse our native thistle with that stuff you fill you feeders with. That’s really niger, an imported seed.) The young goldfinches are fed partially digested seeds that are regurgitated by the parents. Yum!

Late breeding works for the finches because they aren’t in a big hurry to migrate. While other birds have to go thousands of miles to reach their wintering grounds, goldfinches don’t migrate very far, and thus can leave as late as November or December, if they leave at all.

Yes, Hildie, most other birds are getting ready for winter, but not the goldfinches. While all of the other birds have finally gotten their lives back and all their kids have moved away. Mr. and Mrs. Goldfinch are just starting out. Soon they will be changing diapers, yelling at their kids to chew with their beaks closed and to straighten up and fly right. Actually, that last lame line makes sense in this case.