The American goldfinch is on a lot of lists of favorite birds.
There are good reasons for this.
The goldfinch is common, conspicuous and easy to recognize.
It occupies a range of habitats, including backyards, and its habits are not offensive to humans. It is not especially aggressive toward other birds. Nor is it loud.
Goldfinch noises are generally restrained and pleasantly sweet.
At rest, goldfinches stand out brilliantly. Their flight is undulating and often accompanied by soft, twittering calls.
Goldfinches are sociable. They often show up in small groups and they forage in fairly large flocks. As many as 200 or more birds may move across the landscape, settling down. The back of the flock rises and moves to the front, so that the flock appears to roll. These foragers can overwhelm a bird feeder. I once counted more than 100 goldfinches crowding a thistle feeder in our backyard west of Gilby, N.D.
Goldfinches are not especially fussy about habitat. Here is Robert E. Stewart’s description of goldfinch habitat in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota”:
“Marginal zones of woodlands and brush land, including wooded areas of high moraines, buttes, river bluffs, stream valley and lake margins, and brushy thickets on the prairie, also including partially wooded residential areas of towns and farmstead and shelterbelts.”
Goldfinch nests are in shrubs and small trees usually from 4 to 7 feet above the ground. Females incubate the eggs. Males gather food.
The American goldfinch is appropriately named. It occurs pretty much everywhere in the United States but not widely in any other country. Its range extends as far north as Central Alberta in Canada and about halfway down Mexico’s Gulf Coast.
Three states have made the American goldfinch their state bird, and these are spread across the country from New Jersey on the Atlantic to Iowa in the Midwest and Washington on the Pacific. Minnesota once was on the list, but switched its allegiance to the common loon. Goldfinches are far more abundant throughout Minnesota than are loons, but the loon is inarguably more representative of the state.
Why the mystery?
Despite all of this, the goldfinch remains a kind of mystery, for several reasons.
One is that its life cycle is out of sync with most other birds. Goldfinches are late nesters. At just the time most bird populations seem to have increased, goldfinches tend to disappear. While swallows are congregating on overhead wires, building up the big flocks prior to migration, goldfinches are just beginning their nesting cycle. As with many species, this is a private undertaking. That’s why goldfinches become notably less conspicuous in late July than they are earlier in the season.
Goldfinches nest late because they are tied closely to the cycle of thistles. The birds use thistle down to line their nests and they feed thistle seed to their nestlings.
The other cause for mystery is the goldfinch’s double—or even triple—identity. Goldfinches are both sexually and seasonably dimorphic. This means male and female birds are not alike, and the winter and summer plumage is not identical.
The goldfinch is named for the male’s breeding plumage, brilliant yellow set off with black on the wings and the top of the head. Females and young birds are duller, tending to green, but still with darker wings. Winter males are rather drab, tending to gray, but again with enough pattern in the wings to allow them to be identified easily.
Goldfinches have become very much more common in our area in winter than they previously were, and this lends them still a third element of mystery. They are tough birds, to be sure. Their historic winter range extended at least as far north as southern Minnesota.
Is it warmer winters that have allowed them to linger through the season as far north as this?
Or are goldfinches exploiting human generosity? Bird feeding has become far more common, and goldfinches may have responded.
Probably, the explanation includes both of these factors.