Craving unhealthy potato chips and dip at the August picnic? Blame this disruption in your diet on the subliminal influence of the American Goldfinch flying nearby. This bird will call “po-tato-chips” and then “dip” in its undulating flight. Okay use lots of imagination and maybe a few picnic beers will aid recognizing this commonly known mimic phrase. However, a perching male Goldfinch sings a beautiful musical mix of warbles and trills. This song along with his brilliant yellow and black plumage are signs of summer in Skagit County.
A plumage changer, the American Goldfinch molts twice each year, once in spring and then a second time in fall. All other finches molt only once in fall. This spring molt changes the male from a drab olive-gray in winter to bright yellow with a black cap. The female transforms from dull olive-brown to olive-brown with yellow highlights. Both sexes change bill color, gray in winter to orange in spring. The black and white wings, notched tail and white under tail coverts reman the same year round. Juveniles exhibit plumage similar to winter adults.
Human activity actually benefits the Goldfinch. Deforestation creates open meadows, farmland and suburban areas which is preferred habitat. Meadows provide wildflowers and grasses. Goldfinches like the cover of bushes and small trees along the edges of meadows. Bird feeders are additional food sources and increase numbers in residential areas. A feeder filled with niger seed (wrongly called thistle) is a sure bet to attract Goldfinches. Be sure to place the feeder where birds can easily seek cover in nearby bushes or trees.
Goldfinches are known as granivores. They primarily eat seeds by hanging on seed heads of plants instead of foraging on the ground. Thistle and dandelion seeds are two favorites. The pappus, short hairs or bristles, of these two plants provides soft lining material for nests. These birds depend on the abundance of seeds for successful nesting. Therefore, they are late season nesters in Skagit County. Nest building starts in July. Construction consists of pliable vegetation lined with pappus in a bowl shape secured to branches with spider web or caterpillar silk. Both the male and female gather materials for nest building. The female is in charge of construction. After laying four to six pale blue eggs, she will spend 95% of her time incubating the eggs over 10 to 12 days. During this time the male brings food to her on the nest. They are often a host for Cowbird eggs. However, this proves to be a bad choice since Cowbird nestlings cannot survive on a vegetarian diet. In Skagit County, Goldfinches have one brood per nesting season.
The American Goldfinch is the official bird of the State of Washington, along with Iowa and New Jersey. Becoming the state symbol was not a smooth flight. School children in 1928 selected the Meadowlark as the state bird, same as seven other states at the time. In 1931, the Washington Federation of Women's Clubs picked the Goldfinch over the Tanager, Song Sparrow, Junco and Pileated Woodpecker. Finally in 1951, state legislators asked school children again to decide between the “Willow Goldfinch” and the Meadowlark. The Goldfinch won. In the 1950's Goldfinches east of the Rockies were know as “Eastern Goldfinches.” West Coast birds were “Willow Goldfinches.” Today both are called American Goldfinches.
They are generally very social birds. However, Goldfinches can be territorial during breeding season. A group is called a “charm” or “treasury.” So treasure these charming birds at the next picnic in Skagit County and be sure to pack potato chips and dip!
References available upon request.