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American Goldfinch: Songbird feeds young a diet of seeds

May 10, 2017

Of all the birds to visit backyard feeders, there is one so clever that she uses spider web silk to weave a nest so tight that it can hold water. They don't sit upright to feed, but will climb and cling, and even feed while hanging upside down. This favorite American songbird is the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis). Though we all know the American Goldfinch by its bright lemon-yellow color, Goldfinches are not bright gold throughout the year. After nesting season the goldfinches molt, or drop all of their old feathers and grow brand-new ones.

The once bright yellow males grow brown feathers, and even their black cap goes away. 

While thistle seed is their favorite food, they also eat the seeds of coneflower, bee balm (monarda), dandelion, black-eyed Susan, cosmos, goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), asters, zinnias and sunflowers. They will eat unopened tree buds, sap from maple trees, and berries such as blackberries and raspberries. 

The bright taxicab-yellow color of male American Goldfinches comes from carotenoid pigments in their diet. At bird feeders, American Goldfinches are drawn to nyjer seed, which is high in oil and calories. They are not finicky eaters, and will feast on just about any type of seeds. 

Try to provide them with plenty of perches so the entire flock can eat at once. The American Goldfinch is the only songbird that feeds its young a diet of seeds. Wild thistle is great to leave in place but beware - many varieties of thistle are highly invasive weeds. 

Unlike many wild bird species, the American goldfinch is actually helped by development such as clearing of forests, because they prefer the open spaces where seed-bearing weeds thrive. To attract them to your yard, try planting flowers that will go to seed and provide them with natural food. 

Keep wild burdock out of your garden, because goldfinches can injure themselves or even die when they get tangled up in the wild burdock burrs. Add some low shrubs, three to 10 feet tall, where they can hide from predators and build nests.

Because the Goldfinch nest is cup-shaped, they prefer to build nests in forked trees and shrubs. Try planting flowering dogwood, elderberry bushes (Sambucus nigra), fruit trees, buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and hawthorn trees (Crataegus spp) as popular nest sites. 

These are among the last birds to breed and nest, often waiting until late June to early August. This means their young are hatched during the peak harvest of seeds. Their typical clutch of four to six pastel-blue, peanut-sized eggs hatch in just 12 days. The young depend upon their parents for food for several weeks. 

Even though American Goldfinches are usually monogamous, some females mate with a different male for their second brood of chicks. 

Over a million American Goldfinches have had identification bands placed on them, so if you ever find a banded bird, call in the band number to the Bird Banding Lab at 1-800-327-BAND. 
Goldfinch flocks are a bit nomadic, moving up to five miles each day in search of better food sources.

Don't be alarmed if your backyard flock stops showing up; it just means they have moved on, and will soon be replaced by a new flock. 
The American Goldfinch is, in a word, charming. So it is no wonder that a flock of these playful yellow birds is called - what else - a charm of Goldfinches.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.