This is an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis). This picture was taken at one of my feeders this morning. It is about 70 degrees F here in Charleston, South Carolina today and we get a great reprieve from the cold snaps that have been plaguing the east coast of the United States these last few weeks. This little one was chilling out and actually trying to get seed through the glass of the feeder which was pretty funny. These are really cool little birds. You can see that this bird has a slight goldish brown tent to his head and back, but during its breeding season in Summer that turns a very bright gold that is striking and hard to miss. These birds live all throughout the continental United States and is the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington. These birds are the only finch species that molt their feathers twice a year, both in late winter and late summer, which is why they look very different during the summer than during the winter. The oldest known American Goldfinch is 10 years and 5 months old.
These birds are some of the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, eating almost solely seeds. They actually breed later than most birds (in June and July) because they wait until many of the plants have fully produced seeds that they use for food. They are common victims of cowbirds, which are “brood parasites” (meaning they lay their eggs in other birds nest and rely on the other birds to feed their young until they is ready to go out on their own). The downside for the cowbirds is that the cannot subsist on an all seed diet so their young usually do not make it in a goldfinch nest.
The American Goldfinch is an example of a bird that is actually being helped by human activity. These birds feed on small seeds, many of these seeds come from “weedy” species of plants (such as the ones in grasses, milkweed, thistles, etc.). These “weedy” species of plants are very common in areas of high disturbance, like areas humans make when they clear forests to construct roads, houses, office buildings, farmland, etc. Once the canopy of trees is taken off it opens up an environment where these low lying plants to take over and thrive, and because of this opens up more food available for these finches. They are also very versatile birds and can thrive within a forest habitat eating the many seeds that are produced by the variety of plants in that environment (I see them a lot picking at the Sweetgum balls hanging on Sweetgum trees).
These little birds are a common site around the southeastern United States this time of year and I think we will see them for years to come. Since they are seed eaters they do readily come in high numbers to feeders set up in you yard. These cool little acrobatic birds are very fun to watch feed (either at the feeder or in the forest), and will commonly hang upside down and sideways to get after food. So I challenge you to get outside and try to find some of the little guys for yourself.
More info on American Goldfinches click Here