The American goldfinch is a year-round resident in New Hampshire. We watch the males turn yellow in the waning days of our feeder season and then in the fall we watch them turn green again. Right now, the goldfinches are in the middle of their breeding season. Most other birds have finished with all that, but the goldfinches’ food supply is just now coming into its own.
Birdwatchers are told that the best way to attract goldfinches to their feeders is to fill them with thistle or nyjer seeds. Most people are familiar with thistle flowers, if for no other reason than they are one of the symbols of Scotland. They began flowering last month and are now going to seed. Nyjer seeds come from an African daisy (Guizotia abyssinica) and daisies are members of the widespread and diverse aster family.
Botanizers are aware that there are two waves of wild flowering plants through the growing season. The first flush comes in the spring and takes place among the woodland species. They are getting their flowering out of the way between the time it gets warm and the time that deciduous trees leaf out and create shade. The second wave arrives out in the open spaces of meadows and marshes, and it begins in mid-summer and continues into the fall. This is where goldfinches live, eat and breed.
The American goldfinch is one of three North American species and the only one that extends its range into the eastern United States. Canadian populations withdraw to the northern United States for the winter and some southern U.S. populations will venture down to Florida and the Gulf Coast during the colder months, but it is not a long-distance migrant.
Goldfinches live in open country and do not mind living near people. As a consequence, their numbers have held fairly steady over the last several decades. They have benefited from suburbanization and other land uses that cut up continuous forest into a mosaic of open spaces and woodlots. In addition to thistles and asters, goldfinches will feed on the seeds of a wide variety of weeds and grasses. They are one of the more purely granivorous bird species, rarely eating any insects at all.
They nest in shrubs and small trees usually within 5 feet of the ground. The females build a tightly woven open cup of grass, leaves and bark strips, lining it with moss and plant down. In the southern part of their breeding range they begin this phase of their annual cycle in late June, but in the northern part it begins in late July and extends into early September, with the timing based purely on the availability of seeds to feed the young birds.
I have an old bird book called “Birds of America” that was originally copyrighted in 1917 and reissued by Doubleday & Company in 1936. In the early 1970s I bought a copy from a remainder table in the Doubleday bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York City. (My family had an annual ritual of visiting the Christmas displays in the department stores, but I focused primarily on the bookstores.) The editor-in-chief of this volume was T. Gilbert Pearson and the consulting editor was none other than famed naturalist John Burroughs. The entries for each species were penned by a collection of contributing editors and writers who represented the cream of the early 20th century ornithological community. The style of writing is charmingly Edwardian, which is to say a little on the purple side.
Here is L. Nelson Nichols on the goldfinch: “The abandon and wild delight of the bird at this season while most other birds are feeding their young has brought forth many interesting comments from nature writers. Dr. [Frank M.] Chapman in his ‘Handbook’ says that ‘their love song is delivered with an ecstasy and abandon which carries them off their feet, and they circle over the field sowing the air with their music.’”
While the language used above is a little over the top, the description is not inaccurate. The American goldfinch is sometimes called the “wild canary” because of the cascading exuberance of its song. For such a small bird, it is very loud. In the liquid elision of the notes and for pure volume, the goldfinch is matched only by the winter and house wrens, two other small birds with huge voices. And the male goldfinches are singing frequently and enthusiastically this time of year, when most other songbirds have either stopped altogether or have considerably cut back on their efforts.
David Sibley renders the goldfinch’s song “toWEE toWEE-toWEEto tweer tweer ti ti ti,” fading out in the end. I have to admit that this is a decent likeness, but individual birds do put their own spin on it.
Goldfinches also have “flight songs” that are variously described as “per-chic-o-ree” or “po-tay-to-chip” which they deliver synchronized with their undulating path through the air. They will typically hit the “chic” note as they bottom out and begin the next ascending leg of their flight.
According to Nichols, during the nesting season this flight call changes to an abbreviated “tic-o-ree” or “or-ree” that is “more directly personal for the mate and young.” Sibley renders this as “ti di di di.”
In the early spring, as the sun grows warmer, the birds will begin lisping a “see-see-e” sound that you may hear around your feeders. This evolves through the season into their call, which is a drawn out “toweeeowee” or “tweeee,” growing surprising nasal toward the finish.
The goldfinch is only about 5 inches long, which even smaller than a chickadee, and, in contradistinction to the volume of their song, their bravado matches their size: they are ninnies. While many other birds will valiantly defend their territories and nests from invading jays or other predators, the goldfinch simply emits its alarm call and retreats. It is also the occasional victim of nest parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird. Furthermore, if you watch the dynamics at your feeder through the winter, you will watch the goldfinches yield to pretty much every other species, including the ostensibly cherubic chickadees.
But this only goes to show that you don’t have be tough to thrive. While many other birds have registered serious declines in their numbers since the mid-1960s when the North American Breeding Bird Survey began, the American goldfinch has decreased only slightly. They have an estimated breeding population of 42 million birds, which is approximately equivalent to the human populations of the state of California and New Hampshire together.