Dear Bird Folks,
In last week’s column you said that you didn’t like goldfinches. Well, here in New Jersey the goldfinch is our state bird and we think it’s pretty darn special. Why don’t you like it?
– Bonnie, Edison, NJ
Fact check time, Bonnie,
First of all, it’s nice to know you read my column. It clearly shows you are a wise person. But you apparently didn’t read this particular column very carefully. I never said I didn’t like goldfinches. Goldfinches eat lots and lots of expensive birdseed. Why wouldn’t I like a bird like that? What I said was, I like catbirds and their quirky personalities better than I like other more brightly colored birds, including goldfinches and cardinals. It was thumbs up for catbirds but not thumbs down for goldfinches. I also like pizza better than donuts, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like donuts. Everybody enjoys a nice plate of pizza and donuts now and then…just ask your governor.
Most of our backyard birds have one thing in common (I mean, besides living in our backyards). They look the same year-round. Chickadees, doves, woodpeckers and titmice all basically have the same plumage in the summer as they do in the dead of winter. Even the male cardinal is as bright red in January as he is in July. However, this is not the case with American Goldfinches. In the winter, even the male goldfinches are a dull olive color and some people don’t even recognize them. “Where are the goldfinches?” is a common question that time of year. Then in March, long before the hummingbirds and orioles return to brighten things up, the male goldfinch transforms from boring olive to radiant yellow. The males grow flashy gold feathers to impress the females, but by doing so they also inadvertently help us make it through the early spring. Just think how dreary March would be without the changing goldfinches to look forward to…well, the changing goldfinches and St. Patrick’s Day. My mother wouldn’t forgive me if I forgot about that.
You might think that once the male finches begin looking fancy they would immediately start courting. But no, they don’t do that. Like a man with a new car who tries to keep the dog and kids out of it for as long as possible, the male goldfinch likes to enjoy his sharp new outfit for a few months before becoming a harried and frazzled father. For most songbirds, the nesting season is over early. They breed as soon as possible in order to take advantage of spring’s explosive insect population. But goldfinches are strict granivores. (Yes, granivores is a real word and no, it doesn’t mean they eat grandmothers. It means they only eat grains, seeds and nothing else.) As a result, goldfinches can put off breeding a little longer, thus their nests and nestlings aren’t subject to the havoc caused by late spring storms. (Of course, they still have to deal with summer thunderstorms, but that fact only gets in the way of my story, so I’m simply going to ignore it for now.)
The peak breeding season for goldfinches isn’t until late July and the reason why they wait so long has been subject to much debate. Some researchers suggest that the birds have to delay breeding because it takes them a long time to recover from their spring molt. Others argue that since grain is the birds’ sole source of food, they must wait until wildflowers, weeds and grasses go to seed before they can breed. Whatever the reason is, I’m just glad that goldfinches are at their hungriest in summer, when a lot of thistle buying customers are around…which is really what it’s all about.
When a goldfinch couple finally does get serious about raising a family, both birds will search for an appropriate location for their nest, but it is the female that has the final say (no surprise there). The female also does all of the nest construction. She gathers small twigs, strips of bark and rootlets and lashes them all together with spider web silk. She then lines her new nest with soft plant down, while the male just stands by and watches the whole process. (He’s too pretty to do any real work.) During this time period the dedicated male will be by his mate’s side every hour of the day. Many of my more romantic customers think this tight relationship is a sign that the two birds are “in love.” That’s a sweet notion, but in reality the male is doing what is known as “mate guarding.” He’s just making sure no other male goldfinch moves in on his woman and is simply protecting his interests. It’s the human equivalent of saving your seat at the movie theater by putting your jacket on it. Sorry, romantics, that’s just the way it is. I think most folks know that goldfinches eagerly come to thistle feeders…provided the seed is fresh. (Old thistle, or seed that has been marked down at discount stores, is likely to be dried out and will often be ignored by the birds.) Mrs. Goldfinch will also come to our yards for nesting material. Cotton stuffing placed in a mesh bag will readily attract nest-building females…and, of course, their mate-guarding partners.
I’m sorry you thought I didn’t like goldfinches, Bonnie. As a birder I enjoy all birds. I’d be happy to write more about these colorful birds, but it’s lunchtime and today I’m in the mood for a nice plate of pizza and donuts. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m in the mood for that everyday.