American Goldfinch—Flying Marshmallow Chicks
By Noreen O’Brien, Purchasing, Marine Parts Express
The ubiquitous American goldfinch, the lemon yellow males sporting black caps, wings and tails and the more drab olive green females, is the latest of our nesters, though one of the earliest to undergo a spring molt. By Easter, the male goldfinches resemble yellow marshmallow chicks found in children’s baskets among the chocolate foil-covered eggs.
The breeding for goldfinches is timed to match the flowering of thistle, an important food item to these birds, which puts them at their nests late July into early August. This explains why the most commonly heard and seen bird now is the goldfinch. While they are in the thick of raising their broods, other songbirds have already begun to head south, parenting tasks behind them.
Interestingly, goldfinches eat few insects, apparently deriving all the nutrients they need from the seeds they eat. Not even the nestlings are fed insects, as most seed-eating nestlings are, only regurgitated seed. Scientists believe this to be one reason brown-headed cowbirds fail to survive in goldfinch nests. Apparently, the cowbirds, parasites dropping their eggs in other species’ nests, will deposit their eggs in the nests of goldfinches, the eggs hatch, but the nestlings need more protein than do the finch nestlings and the cowbirds die before fledging.
Goldfinches prefer open areas in weedy fields, roadsides and gardens, areas that provide food for a large foraging flock. In winter, the birds will remain in an area as long as they are able to find food. Once their food is snow covered, the birds move on, unless they find a well-stocked feeder to supplement their diet.
Following a pattern of undulating flight across fields or yards, perhaps heading for your feeder, these finches flap their wings, then fold them against the body losing altitude, and then a few more flaps, gaining ascent. It’s a lovely sight to see a flock of these bright yellow birds roller coasting, tossing their cheerful “perchickory” song into the air as they roll along.
Vocal year round, the goldfinch’s communications are an integral part of the flock’s socialization. Studies show that these birds continue to learn songs into adulthood. Paired birds acquire almost identical songs. The female, which does the incubation at the nest, depends upon her mate to feed her regurgitated seed while she broods and when the chicks first hatch. She is able to recognize her mate by his tune and responds in kind when she hears him near the nest.
After reading some of the literature on goldfinch vocalizations, I am now keenly aware that I have to pay closer attention to these birds when they are at my feeder, the perfect place to observe birds. I have been missing subtle differences in their calls and songs. My guess is that learning some of these variations will be a challenging task. This, before I can even begin to fathom the possible intent behind them.
Oddly enough, goldfinches don’t seem to be particularly aggressive when responding to a predator, the most common one being the domestic cat. At the nest, which is often shaded from above, but visible from below, the females offer a distraction display, “pretending” to be hurt, therefore vulnerable and easy prey. However, the birds don’t seem to attempt to defend the nest, or even themselves, at feeders, for instance, except to fly away. I wonder why that is, considering they are a species heavily predated, or perhaps they are this because they are not so defensive.
The next time you see American goldfinches at your feeders, watch carefully. These birds are classic examples of the pecking order system. Goldfinches travel in flocks of their own kind, sometimes by the hundreds in winter, but they also make up mixed flocks of chickadees, pine siskins and redpolls. The goldfinches are timid birds. Note this as you watch the birds on the periphery move in on those sitting on a feeder and see how quickly the feeding goldfinch gives up its perch.
Also, be aware of the constant communications voiced between individual birds. See if you can determine what is being “said” between them.
As always, I will be looking forward to hearing of your observations.
We at Marine Parts Express don’t travel in flocks, but we do work together to make sure our customers get the correct items. Call us toll free at 877.621.2628 for all your marine engine needs.
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Marine Parts Express is a division of Water Resources, Inc., a privately held Maine Corporation
Comments? Questions? Suggestions for topics for our blog or newsletter? Send them to
Marine Parts Express is a division of Water Resources, Inc., a privately held Maine Corporation.
For all your marine engine parts needs, call us toll free at 877.621.2628, or outside the U.S. at 207.882.6165.
August 28, 2011 / Noreen O'Brien / 0
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