Nature Notes: Goldfinches are common birds with uncommon traits

One of the prettiest birds to grace our Connecticut back yards is the male American goldfinch.

In the spring and early summer, this “wild canary” dazzles our eyes with its striking lemon-yellow plumage, black wings, white wing bars and a black forehead patch. The bright colors help the male attract a mate.

During mating season, both male and female goldfinches distinguish themselves by flying up and down in looping flight patterns, chattering and chasing after each other. Their aerial antics are fun to watch.

Male goldfinches morph into different colors throughout the year, wearing subdued, olive-brown feathers in the winter, while females display drab, yellow-brown colors during this time of year and brighten slightly in the summer.

The American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is the only bird in the finch family (sparrow-sized birds with conical beaks and short, notched tails) that molt or replace their feathers twice a year. Other birds, like hummingbirds, chickadees, jays, owls and hawks gradually replace their feathers once a year, while warblers change once, plus a partial.

These attractive songbirds have other unusual traits. For example, American goldfinches are almost entirely vegetarian, eating seeds from thistles, asters, sunflowers, or seeds from the elm, birch and alder trees.

And, they are late nesters, waiting until almost mid-July for thistles and milkweed plants to produce their seeds, which the finches feed to their young. Goldfinches also use the milkweed’s silky, fibrous plant down from seed pods to build their nests.

It takes the female American goldfinch about six days to build a nest, placing it high in a shrub, lashing it to branches with sticky spider and caterpillar silk, then lining the inside with soft milkweed and thistle down.

Fortunately for us, the American goldfinch is a beautiful, common, year-round bird, and easy to attract to most backyard feeders. Black oil sunflower or nyjer seeds, both high in protein and fat, work well.

If you know or have heard of any fun or unusual bird or animal stories, please write me, and I will gladly include these or photos in future columns.

Bill Hobbs is a resident of Stonington and a life-long wildlife enthusiast. For comments, he can be reached at whobbs246@gmail.com.

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