For the Birds Radio Program: American Goldfinch

Original Air Date: Jan. 4, 1988

American Goldfinches can remain up here all winter. Once spring comes, they pair off early but don’t nest until mid- or late-summer.

Duration: 3′38″


(This is the original. There was another program used later that originally was linked to this–I’m not sure where it belongs.)

Just before Christmas, I heard fro a listener in Maple, Wisconsin, tho has goldfinches at hear feeder. Goldfinches are welcome birds at any time, but in winter they’re a special treat in these parts. They may be common in southern and central Wisconsin and Minnesota all year, but a Lake Superior winter is generally too rugged for their tastes. There are many records of small groups of goldfinches in the Northland through December and early January, and they return each spring as early as April first. The winter of 82-83 was the first year on record that this species was recorded as common in much of northern Minnesota ll winter, but that was probably just serendipity, not the start of a trend. Winter goldfinches, like other forms of natural gold, will probably remain rare and treasured, gracing only a lucky few with their presence.

The American Goldfinch has a wide range in North America. It’s the state bird of New Jersey on the East Coast, Washington on the West Coast, and Iowa, right smack in the middle. It even used to be the state bird of Minnesota, until the state legislature officially adopted the loon in 1961.

Goldfinches are closely related to pet shop canaries, accounting for their nickname, the “wild canary.” They’re in the same genus as the drab but friend Pine Siskin, which is the most common bird at Northland feeders this winter.

Goldfinches are noted for being the latest nesting bird each year. Most birds begin laying eggs up here by the first week in June at the latest, but goldfinches don’t even start building their nest until August. They line the nest with thistle down and milkweed silk, which aren’t available until late summer. I’ve watched goldfinches feeding new fledglings in Ashland as late as Labor Day weekend.

Goldfinches are birds of open country, rare in the dense woodlands of northeastern Minnesota. They’re much more common on the South Shore of Lake Superior, with its pastures and fallow fields, than on the more heavily wooded North Shore.

If you want to attract wintering goldfinches to your feeder, you can try setting out niger seed, commonly called thistle seed. Real thistle is a noxious weed seed which isn’t normally sold—niger is imported from India. It tastes the same to a goldfinch, but fortunately, it doesn’t sprout on midwestern soil. Thanks to the expense of importing niger, it’s extremely expensive, running about the same per pound as a good cut of steak. Some people think the seed is wasted, since the ground under their feeders quickly gets covered with the black seed cases, but if you look at the fallen seeds carefully, you’ll notice that most of them are slit down the side. The black outer case is dropped when the birds pull out the actual seed from the inside.

Goldfinches are wearing their modest winter plumage right now, but next month they’ll start molting into their bright spring feathers. During the transformation they look splotchy for a while, which caused Ogden Nash to write:

The song of canaries
Never varies.
And when they’re molting,
They’re pretty revolting.