American Gold

This male American Goldfinch is beginning to show its true colors. Besides the brighter yellow of this bird, note the tiny black feathers on the forehead (2/28/13).

Our goldfinches are starting to molt into alternate, or breeding, plumage. As we move into spring, the males forsake their drab olive-gray coloring for the bright yellow, black, and white feathers of their breeding plumage. Their bills lose the dull gray-blackness of winter for the bright orange of the mating season.

The male on the right is beginning to show even more black feathers on its head and note the yellow feathers coming in on its back (3/1/13).

Goldfinches molt into their basic (non-breeding) plumage in the fall. The birds molt all of their feathers at this time, wings, tail (flight feathers), and body (contour) feathers. This can take about two months of gradual molt. The primaries and secondaries (wing feathers) molt from the center of the wing going both inward (secondaries) and outward (primaries) at the same time, one after another. The same is true of the tail, the molt starts with the center two tail feathers and proceeds outward. The birds can have a rather ragged appearance during September and October, some feathers missing, others just starting to grow in. In the end, the birds are a rather drab yellow-gray.

In the spring, February and March, the birds again molt, but this time it’s just the contour feathers, the wings and tail feathers will not be replaced again until the fall. But as I said, it’s a gradual process, the old feathers being pushed out by the new ones coming in. The birds would have a tough time of it if they lost all of their feathers at once, especially the flight feathers, the wing and tail feathers. How would they fly?

Some waterfowl renew all of their flight feathers at once, having the advantage of being able to float out on the water away from any would be predators, except for snapping turtles and eagles I suppose. But for most birds, loss of the ability to fly means loss of life.

There’s more than just molt going on here. This bird is frozen in place. An alert call went out sending all of the other birds scrabbling for cover. This bird was caught out in the open, “don’t move, it’s movement that catches the predator’s eye.”

The goldfinch in the above photo was left at the feeders while all the other birds took shelter at the report of a predator in the area. The bird was very still. It didn’t even bother to finish eating the seed it had in its bill. You can see the shell on the left side of the bird’s bill (the bird’s left side).

I got everyone moving again when, after a few minutes of watching this little goldfinch stand motionless (which can’t be easy for these little creatures), I got up out of my chair and sent away whatever it was that had originally spooked the birds. I never saw what scattered the birds, it may have been a false alarm for all I know. But whatever it might have been, my sudden activity apparently signaled the “all clear.” It was safe to move again.

Go little goldfinch, fly away, or at least finish eating.

Goldfinches are gentle birds, or so they seem to me. Sure, they bicker among themselves and the other birds while at the feeders, but of all the birds that I’ve had the privilege of handling, the goldfinch seemed the most gentle. When caught in a net goldfinches always seemed to simply lay there waiting to be picked up. And, they have a soft feel to them.

Unlike cardinals who would constantly struggle, bite you hardly, and never shut up the whole time while you went about measuring, weighing and banding them, or the blue jays screaming and pecking at your hands, the catbirds screeching and pooping all over you, the goldfinches resigned themselves to whatever it was you were going to do to them. Maybe that’s a fault, I don’t know, but I’d like to think of it as part of their gentle nature.

I think they’re underated, goldfinches, that is. They’re attractive birds with their yellow, black and white plumage, orange bill and short, bubble gum-colored legs. Even the female, which is not as brightly colored as the male, has an attractive “gentle” look to her. In flight too, a bouncing, dipping affair similar to that of a woodpecker, the birds attract attention to themsleves. As if the bright yellow plumage were not enough they usually call out with their so-called po-ta-to-chip or cha-CHE-cha-chip call while skipping across the countryside.

Feeder watchers, those that go through the extra trouble and expense of buying the special feeders and niger seed that the goldfinches prefer, truely appreciate the little birds. Most birders, hardcore birders, barely give the bird a glance, saving their admiration for the brightly colored Neotropic migrants like warblers, tanagers and the like. I even think the bird was stiffed in the naming process, its latin species name is tristis, which means sad or gloomy.

Take a break, stop by the feeders and give a few minutes to watching these little golden fringillids. Do they look sad or gloomy to you?

I didn’t think so.

4 responses to American Gold

  1. judy Overby says:

    I too appreciate the Goldfinch. In the summer months I sometimes get a glimpse of one flying at a distance and for a moment think I am seeing an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly!

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Good for you, I’m glad we have more goldfinch lovers out there!
      Since you mentioned Eastern Tiger Swallowtails I feel I have to mention that I just saw two Mourning Cloaks out by the Dinosaur Trail. It just keeps getting better!

  2. jennifer says:

    Thanks for the goldfinch tribute! I love them. Do birds that keep the same color year-round (like cardinals and robins) also have a similar molting schedule?

    • Greg Dodge says:

      Molt varies from species to species. But most, if not all, birds have at least one complete molt a year.
      Northern Cardinals have a prebasic molt after the breeding season like the goldfinches where all of the feathers are replaced, but do not have a prealternate molt in the spring like its smaller cousin.
      The same is true of American Robins.
      You may have noticed that robins may look less brightly colored in the fall and more defined, with a brighter brick red breast, in the spring. When they molt in the fall the tips of the new body feathers that replace the old are dull-tipped making for an overall dull bird. By the time spring rolls around those dull tips have worn off revealing brighter colors beneath, creating a brighter bird overall.
      Good question.

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