Did you ever notice that it never quite feels like spring, until our world is dotted with yellow? In our yards we eagerly await the early daffodils and forsythia sprays. We don’t look forward to dandelions quite as much, but you have to admit their bright sunny yellow is a sign that spring really has arrived.
Bird lovers also await an early yellow: The American Goldfinch. This is not a true first of spring like returning migrants. Goldfinches remain here all winter, coming to our bird feeders. Through the fall and winter they are a soft, almost drab, olive color with dark wings and light white or cream wing bars. However, right about now, all of a sudden we spy a flash of bright yellow! The males have attained their breeding plumage, and are ready to show it off!
|Photo by Rick Newton
Many birds change plumage when breeding season approaches. Warblers are notably confusing to birders as they change back and forth over the year. However, most of our local resident birds keep the same plumage year round. Think of Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, and Blue Jays that visit our feeders through all seasons. Even Cardinals; while males and females are significantly different from one another, each remains pretty much the same throughout the year. It is our Goldfinch that changes the most dramatically.
In the fall, the males begin to get mottled looking, their feathers seem to look a little raggedy as the duller color replaces their bright yellow. During the winter the males and females look pretty much the same except for some subtle differences. Many people believe their “Wild Canaries”, their Goldfinches, have left with the other migrants. Not so.
It is curious that we don’t really notice the males changing back to yellow. Do they hide? Are they embarrassed by their disheveled appearance? No, not at all, though you have to keep your eyes open. It is just that when the day comes, and they appear at our feeder in that glorious bright spring yellow, accented by black wings and black cap; it is a stunning sight. It is hard to believe they have been here all along. A sight for sore eyes that have been counting signs of spring!
|Photo by Rick Newton
Goldfinches are birds that use many habitats. They can be most frequently found in field and shrub habitats, as well as around our back yards. They are a species very dependent on seeds so in all seasons you can look for them in weedy grassy fields and hedgerows. Check the fields at the Knox Preserve , among other Avalonia properties, for the bright yellow finch perched atop a grass seed head or flower stem. They are one of the latest of the bird species to nest in the summer. They look for the downy seeds of milkweed, thistle and others to line their nests, and their young hatch when seeds are most abundant in later August.
Written by Beth Sullivan.
Learn more about the American Goldfinch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.