Goldfinches provide cheerful summer observations


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Enjoy the appearance of the vibrant male American goldfinches now. They will soon adopt their drab winter plumage for the next few months.

Summer is a season of plenty for American goldfinches. Even roadside ditches are choked with chicory, evening primrose and other seed-producing plants often dismissed as “weeds.” Simply driving local roads has produced several sightings of flocks of American goldfinches in recent weeks.

These small, colorful finches are also regular visitors to my feeders, although they don’t really need my offering of black oil sunflower seeds to supplement the natural smorgasbord available to them.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed deliberately to coincide with this season of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on seeds, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Special mesh feeders can distribute thistle seeds, a favorite treat of the American goldfinch.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in the protein derived from insects.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

Lawrence’s goldfinch was named by John Cassin in 1850 for his colleague George Lawrence, a New York businessman and amateur ornithologist. His enthusiasm for birds must have impressed his colleagues. One bird genus and 20 species were named in his honor. Lawrence’s goldfinch, known by the scientific name Spinus lawrencei, honors him doubly with both the scientific and common names for the bird.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant American goldfinch undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male American goldfinch perches on a dead branch.

The best strategy for attracting goldfinches is to provide some of their favorite foods. Black oil sunflower seed and the seeds of nyjer thistle are highly favored. The tiny thistle seeds require special feeders. Mesh “socks” can also be used to dispense the thistle seed.

An alternative is to plant a garden that offers an abundance of fresh seeds. A stand of sunflowers will attract goldfinches, as well as other birds such as indigo bunting and house finch. Liatris, also known as gay feather, produces flower spikes that are sought out by goldfinches for their seeds. Other favorites include asters and coneflowers. The bonus is that even after the beautiful blooms are past, the birds can still benefit from the seeds left behind after flowering.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at

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