Always in season: Goldfinch makes a good emblem of August
The American goldfinch is among our most brightly colored, most melodious and most common birds.
It is therefore a favorite.
At one time, in fact, it was the state bird of Minnesota, but it was displaced by the loon -- a bird that is much more dramatic but much less frequently seen.
The goldfinch occurs throughout Minnesota, except for dense forests.
These birds are especially frequent in weedy fields and gardens and in backyards that aren't too heavily shaded. That means they aren't too often encountered in older neighborhoods. New residential developments, however, often have their share of goldfinches.
They're easy to attract. Goldfinches come eagerly to bird feeders. They're especially fond of thistle seed, but they'll come to black oilseed sunflower seed, as well.
Plus, they appreciate a bird bath.
The goldfinch's bouncing flight is distinctive, and its whistled "tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit" calls are familiar sounds of summer. Probably everyone has heard goldfinches, even if they didn't recognize the source of the sound.
Goldfinches are small birds, about the size of sparrows, which they resemble -- no surprise because all of our native sparrows are also members of the finch family.
Unlike sparrows, goldfinches are brilliantly colored. Males are bright yellow with black and white wings. They've also got a black topknot that extends from the back of the bill, over the eyes to the top of the head.
No other American bird has this color combination.
Still, goldfinches might be confused with other yellow birds, including the yellow warbler and even some cage birds, especially canaries. I often hear goldfinches, as well as yellow warblers, referred to as "wild canaries."
Goldfinches and canaries do have a superficial resemblance because they are both seed-eaters. Yellow warblers are bug-eaters, though, and their habits are completely different than those of the goldfinch.
But as it happens, yellow warblers and goldfinches occur in the same habitats. They exploit differing niches. Warblers spend most of their time in trees, including mature ones, and they don't come to feeders, except in extremis, and then not to seeds but to suet.
Canaries, of course, are Old World birds. They are common as caged birds, mostly because they sing sweetly, and some escape from captivity. But no canary could survive a Minnesota winter.
The goldfinch is considerably tougher. Wintering birds are now common in our area, probably because of the boom in feeding birds. It's also true that recent winters have been milder, and that may enhance goldfinch survival.
The winter goldfinch is a less colorful bird, however, although it can be distinguished fairly easily from other winter birds, mostly by the prominent white bars on the wings.
There are two other goldfinch species in North America, Lawrence's goldfinch and lesser goldfinch. Neither of these occurs in our area.
The European goldfinch has been introduced -- perhaps escaped from captivity -- in several places in North America, but there's disagreement whether it has become established as a resident breeding species.
Still, there have been sightings of birds that were apparently wild in northern Minnesota and Manitoba, so it's not out of the question that they could show up here.
These four are called "cardueline finches," from the Latin word for thistle.
Goldfinches show preference for thistles not only as food, but as building material. The birds line their nests with thistle down, packing it closely enough that the cup-shaped nests actually hold water, and the chicks sometimes drown.
Some goldfinches aren't too choosy about nesting material, though. Last week, I had a report of goldfinches carrying off bits of cotton.
The goldfinch's strong preference for thistle means that they nest late, mostly in late July and early August, but sometimes as late as September. This guarantees ready supplies of food for nestlings.
It also makes the American goldfinch a good candidate for the avian emblem of August.