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Goldfinches Change Color

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve noticed that the male goldfinches are starting to turn from their winter olive drab to their bright summer yellow. Are the finches growing new feathers or do their old feathers change color?

– Emily, Middletown, CT


Hi Emily,

Birds don’t change colors, you must be thinking of chameleons. I don’t know of any birds or many creatures that are able to change their colors without growing new fur or feathers. There are some exceptions like a few fish, some reptiles, and the pale people who visit Tan-O-Rama.

The male goldfinches molt into their brilliant spring outfits. New, colorful feathers push out the worn, dull winter plumes. For the next few weeks we will be seeing goldfinches in various stages of molting and they will look a bit odd until the process is complete. But eventually, even the Connecticut male finches will acquire their signature gold feathers. And I’ve heard that in some CT towns, like Cos Cob and New Canaan, the goldfinches’ feathers are made of real gold. But that’s only a rumor.

But what I don’t quite understand is why some birds change colors at all. The standard answer is that some birds molt into flashy new colors to “attract a mate.” That makes sense, I guess, but why do we have such a growing population of really dull species like sparrows, mourning doves and tax accountants? There is no color there, but somehow they manage to attract mates. And the other side of that question is why do the goldfinches change into dull colors in the fall?

Again, the traditional answer is they become duller in the winter so they can better hide from predators. That’s fine, but what about the colorful group that look the same year-round? Some species like cardinals, blue jays and Elton John never give up their attention-grabbing outfits and they continue to survive.

Another question is why do some birds get to eat bread, while others are stuck eating worms? And why? Oops, sorry Emily, I got off the track there for a few minutes. The answer is, goldfinches molt into their yellow color. See, that was easy. Let’s move on before I start ranting about feeling doublecrossed by birds that still nail my windshield with their droppings after all that I have done for them.