Wildlife Wednesday: American goldfinch

During a recent live bird presentation to Nature Day Campers at Chippewa Nature Center, Barb and Joe Rogers of Wildlife Rescue Association asked children to name their favorite bird.

One favorite was the American goldfinch, a bright little bird like a spot of sunshine in summer. If this were a rainforest bird, it would be extremely popular for its brilliant colors of black and yellow and its cheerful attitude.

The American goldfinch is quite common in Michigan. Males stand out like a beacon in bright yellow, accented with black wings and cap. The brilliant hues act as a decoy for predators. The female has quieter colors, which help her to hide while she incubates eggs or warms her nestlings. She is an olive-grey yellow and can seem to disappear into the vegetation.

The American goldfinch eats some berries and insects, but its diet primarily consists of seeds; adults even feed nestlings regurgitated seeds. They are easily drawn to feeding stations, preferring sunflower seeds and thistle seeds. They will also feed on many other seeds, including those of goldenrod, aster, burdock, dandelion, chicory and garden flower seed heads such as zinnias, coreopsis, cosmos and lettuce.

These bright little birds nest in late summer, usually August, when very few other birds are nesting and seeds are abundant. The nest is a small cup-shaped structure which is lined with thistle down or other soft materials. The nest is so well made that it can hold water; the adult tending the nest must always be present on the nest in a rain storm in order to keep the nestlings dry. The fledglings, which look like a fuzzy yellow stuffed animal, leave the nest by September, and follow their parents to learn goldfinch ways.

Joe Rogers has observed how, if he walks quietly, a family of American goldfinches will allow him to approach at a close range.

“Finding a nest of these little birds is a pleasure, but the more I looked at a goldfinch nest, the more I realized that I could never accomplish the high-quality engineering that went into the creation of this home,” said Joe.

In addition to its bright colors, the call of the American goldfinch is among many people’s favorite bird calls. They have been known to chirp at people walking through forests or to fellow birds, sounding like “per-chick-o-ree.”

Whole flocks of goldfinches, also known as wild canaries, will swoop over fields, orchards and one of their favorite habitats, shrub swamp. Flying in an undulating flight, these mixed flocks that often contain other small birds will then settle on favorite food plants.

As winter approaches, many of the brightly colored birds migrate to warmer climates. However, American goldfinches remain in Michigan all winter long and continue to show up at feeders.

However, males will molt to change their coat to a drab olive color with dark wings, thereby looking more like female goldfinches. Goldfinches in winter can easily be mistaken for sparrows.

The goldfinch is considered a symbol of optimism, according to Barb Rogers, and has many other connections to representations of happiness, enthusiasm, energy and joy.

“As with many birds, they certainly will spark a moment of joy in our lives,” Barb said. “We thank the young CNC Nature Day Campers for choosing such a beautiful bird for their ‘favorite bird’ status.”

In Michigan, bird watchers may be able to see up to eight different types of finches; the American goldfinch can lead to learning about many other finches in the future.

Wildlife Recovery Association is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to education, rehabilitation and research to benefit wildlife, and management of a sanctuary to protect rare and sensitive species. To donate to help these magnificent animals, visit wildliferecovery.org or write to Wildlife Recovery Association, 531 S. Coleman Road, Shepherd, MI 48883.