For the Birds Radio Program: Wild Canaries

Original Air Date: June 20, 1989

Laura talks about the bird that used to be Minnesota’s state bird.

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A couple of years ago, we conducted an informal poll to find out which birds were our listeners favorites. Two letters poured in, one voting the Winter Wren as having the prettiest song, and the other voting the American Goldfinch as having the prettiest plumage. It’s the only lemon yellow bird with black wings, cap, and tail. It’s closely related to the Evening Grosbeak, but is much smaller, and to the Pine Siskin, but is much brighter. It’s also related to pet canaries–in captivity, goldfinches have even bred with canaries and successfully raised hybrid babies.That’s why goldfinches are also known as wild canaries.

The goldfinch is pretty enough to be the state bird of Washington on the West Coast, New Jersey on the East Coast, and Iowa, right in the middle. It even used to be considered Minnesota’s state bird–until the legislature officially adopted the loon in 1961.

Right now, many people with summer feeders have at least one or two goldfinches visiting. Goldfinches seem perfectly content with sunflower seed, but their favorite feeder treat is niger seed. It looks and states like black thistle seed, but comes from India and won’t germinate in the U.S. Real thistle seed is not sold anywhere because it develops into a noxious weed, but many storeowners call niger seed thistle. The only problem with niger is that it costs as much per pound as a good cut of steak–and once the goldfinches and siskins discover it, it never lasts long. In my yard, the goldfinches usually have to settle for sunflower.

The goldfinch is the latest nesting bird in the Northland. It usually can’t even begin to build its nest until July or even August, when other small birds are already heading south for the winter. The goldfinch waits until milkweed pods are ripe and thistle plants have gone to seed, so it can line its cup-shaped nest with soft milkweed and thistle down. The nest is so densely constructed that it’s waterproof–if the parents don’t cover their nestlings during a rain, the young may even drown.

Even though the nests aren’t built until later, pairs begin courting in May and June. Males sing a long finchy song which apparently helps them to attract a mate.

It’s easy to recognize goldfinches in flight, even from afar. They undulate across the sky, swooping up and down as they say perchickory, perchickory.

At summer’s end, goldfinches will molt into their dull winter plumage. As bright breeding feathers are pushed out by drab new ones, each bird looks strangely mottled for a short time. Ogden Nash wrote about its close relative:

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