By Jeannie Marcure
For most of us, the month of December is filled with visions of sugar-plums and the other trappings that have come to be expected during the holiday season; but for bird lovers the premier event might just be Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. This annual event offers opportunities for both expert and novice birders to gather and spend a day observing, counting, and learning about birds. The first year that I was involved with the Kalispell CBC, one of the biggest surprises for me was the sighting of numerous American Goldfinches, birds that I had previously seen only in the summer. In my ignorance, I even thought that perhaps a mistake had been made. (My apologies to Dan Casey our count coordinator!) I have since learned that many American Goldfinch winter in the Flathead, but because of a change in appearance, winter identification can be a challenge.
As one of the most brightly colored birds found in our area, the summer Goldfinch is easily recognized and has become a feeder favorite. Sometimes called a wild canary, this sparrow-sized bird is a faithful visitor to back yards where their favorite food, thistle seed, is offered. As one of 23 species of the family Fringillidae found in North America, the American Goldfinch is abundant over most of North America where there is suitable habitat. Clearing of forest and creation of open weedy areas has benefited the American Goldfinch, who is almost exclusively a seed eater, even when feeding young and, in return, Goldfinches provide an important service to landowners by consuming large numbers of weed seeds. Approximately 5 inches in length, American Goldfinch males are unmistakable in the spring and summer with their black caps, tails and wings and their bright lemon-yellow bodies. Females are less brilliant with their olive-yellow coloring and lack of a black cap. This more subtle coloring allows her plumage to better blend in with the surroundings while she is in the nest. Both sexes have slender beaks especially adapted to extract seeds from the seed heads of plants such as thistle, birch, alder, and cedar. Also, because they have short, strong legs that allow them to cling to seed heads and thistle feeders it’s not uncommon to see them hanging upside down to feed.
The American Goldfinch mates later than most birds, with nesting seeming to depend on the flowering of the thistle plant which provides a favorite food and nesting material. In our area, thistles begin to bloom in late June or early July and during this time the courtship and territorial display of the Goldfinch includes acrobatic maneuvers by the male, who also sings during this flight. In his 1902 Handbook, Frank Chapman wrote of the Goldfinch, “Their flight is expressive of their joyous nature, and as they bound through the air they hum a gay ‘per-chic-o-ree.’ Their love song is delivered with an ecstasy and abandon which carries them off their feet, and they circle over the fields sowing the air with music.”
After mating, the female builds a cup-shaped nest of down and plant fibers in the fork of a tree or shrub, while the male keeps watch. The nest is woven so tightly that it will hold water and sadly there have been reports of young birds that have drowned in water retained in the nest while the parents weren’t present. The 4 to 6 light blue eggs are incubated by the female and hatch in about 2 weeks. Chicks are born naked and with their eyes closed. Both parents feed the young regurgitated seeds and the young birds fledge in about 17 days. A gregarious bird throughout the year, the American Goldfinch seems to feed in small groups during breeding season, while it is found almost exclusively in large flocks during the winter.
During the winter months, identification becomes more difficult, as male Goldfinches lose their black caps and the previously lemon-yellow body turns a buffy brown. The face and throat of the male retain some yellow, while the wings are primarily black with dirty white edges, creating two distinct wing bars. The tail is black with white edges and the bill and legs are yellow. The female in winter plumage has similar coloring, although she has no yellow on her head or throat.
In spring, the American Goldfinch returns to breeding plumage by a second complete molt of its body feathers, the only member of the finch family to do so. The state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington, the American Goldfinch was first reported in Montana on June 8, 1805, when, in the vicinity of the Marias River, Meriwether Lewis made the following entry in …. his journal: “The river bottoms affording all the timber which is to be seen in the country they are filled with innumerable litle birds that resort thither either for shelter or to build their nests. when sun began to shine today these birds appeared to be very gay and sung most inchantingly; I observed among them the brown thrush, Robbin, turtle dove, linnit goaldfinch, the large and small blackbird, wren and several other birds of less note.”
Interestingly, Goldfinches also commonly appear in illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages where they were associated with the Christ child. In southern Italy and Sicily, Goldfinches were commonly released at the same time that a figure representing the risen Christ appeared at Easter celebrations and it is thought that the fondness of goldfinches for prickly thistles may have recalled the crown of thorns and thus led to their association with Christ.
Last year’s CBC reported 24 American Goldfinch in the Bigfork circle and 121 in the Kalispell circle. Consider joining us for our annual Christmas Bird Count and perhaps you too will spot one of these beautiful valley residents this Christmas season!