Posts Tagged ‘American Goldfinch’


Goldfinch at Sunflower

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Even though we still have a deep snow cover, and the thermometer reads minus 10 C this morning, Spring is slowly, quietly creeping in. If you stand in a protected spot, out of the wind, the greater warmth of the sun is striking. Even on cold days, puddles form where the sun heats the ground. And the morning chorus is changing.

All winter long, when I step out the door to top up the bird feeders each morning, I am greeted by a raucous cacophony of Blue Jay voices. A few birds seem to watch for me, and upon my entrance, bird seed in hand, they send up a cry that brings a rush of blue as the belligerent diners assemble, each one anxious to be among the first to snatch up the prized peanuts.


But now the jays are quieter, less aggressive, hanging back. In the treetops, a flock of goldfinches assemble each morning. As they preen their feathers, they gossip amongst themselves with cheerful chatter. Their bright conversation is punctuated with an occasional chuck from a Red-winged Blackbird, and this morning I heard a robin call.

When I look at the photograph of the individual below, I think perhaps I can detect a touch of bright yellow just beginning to brighten his face. As winter fades, the goldfinches replace their subdued bronze feathercoat with the iconic brilliant yellow of summer American Goldfinches.


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When we think of bird migration, robins flying south and vees of Canada geese come to mind. However, there are many variations on the theme of migration. For example, American Goldfinches are short-distance migrants. Although we see goldfinches year-round here, the birds we see in summer aren’t the same individuals as the birds we see in winter. The summer breeders move a few hundred miles south. They are replaced by another flock of goldfinches that, to our undiscerning eyes look just the same, and arrive from a location farther north.

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are northern breeders, migrating to the Canadian Shield and Hudson Bay Lowlands for the nesting season. In winter, they migrate back to Southern Ontario and points south. I spotted my first junco of the winter on Monday, as it flew up from the lawn where it had been foraging and disappeared into a thicket. Juncos are easily identified in even a short glimpse by their distinctive tail feathers. The grey fan is flanked on each side by a stripe of white that leaves no doubt as to the identity of the fleeing bird.

These photos are a bit blurred because I just shot them through the porch screen, a record of the first winter foragers preparing for the long, cold season ahead.


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Goldfinches in Maple Tree


Corkscrew Willow


Winter Barn

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American Goldfinches in various stages of colour change.

When I step out the door these mornings, what a joyful noise greets my ears! The air is filled with the songs of birds. The many Robins are “Cheer-up!”ing. The Red-winged Blackbirds are “Oak-a-lee!”ing. The Mourning Doves inquire “Oh, who? Who? Who?” The Chickadees whistle “Seaaa-beee!” The Grackles cackle. The Crows caw. The Cowbirds burble. The Phoebe wheezes his name. The Goldfinches and Juncos twitter. Overhead, Canada Geese honk their way across the sky. The neighbours’ pen of Turkeys gobble. The Blue Jays, seated high in the tree branches, call out “Jay!” as they wait for me to bring forth my daily offering of peanuts. In the last few days, a Hairy Woodpecker has been rat-a-tatting noisily on some metal siding.

Purple Finch and American Goldfinch at niger feeder.

Some bird-feeders stop putting seed out once the snow has melted away, figuring the birds can forage for themselves. If you carry on filling your feeders, however, you can enjoy the pleasure of having a whole raft of “spring” birds close at hand. It is fun to watch for the new arrivals and observe the Goldfinches changing out their drab gold feather coats for brilliant yellow ones. I didn’t see Purple Finches all winter, but now a few have joined the Goldfinches at the niger feeder. If you can keep your suet feeder stocked in spite of the assault of the melting sun and aggressive Starlings, you may be rewarded with the sight of parent Downy Woodpeckers feeding their youngsters at the suet station.

In the cacophony of spring voices, one of the sweetest belongs to the White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They are easily recognized by their yellow lores, spots over the eyes, and white throats. They sing a pure, whistled “Oh! Sweet! Canada! Canada! Canada!” And how sweet it is, indeed.

Whitethroated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco

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As spring gently unfolds her warmth, the species of birds that frequent the backyard feeder are changing with the weather. Certainly, the feeder is still a major attraction. However, the Blue Jays that dominated the daily arrivals just a few weeks ago have now given way to Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. That’s not to say that the Blue Jays have disappeared, but fewer seem to be visiting. The American Goldfinches, on the other hand, are present in even greater numbers. The males are just starting to show signs of their spring spruce-up as their bright yellow breeding colours begin to replace their muted winter gold. A few days ago, the Goldfinches were joined by a few raspberry-bright Purple Finches. The Purple Finches weren’t regular winter visitors, so perhaps these few are just stopping by on their migration north. The wintering American Tree Sparrows are still here too. They will be leaving for their northern breeding grounds one day soon. I find that they tend to just disappear one day, replaced by similarly-coloured Chipping Sparrows as if by magic. The Chipping Sparrows breed here in the summer and winter farther south.

A few male Brown-headed Cowbirds have been joining the Grackles and Red-wings. I did see a few stray Cowbirds that visited a few times in the winter, but I think these individuals are probably here for the summer.

I like to watch the Grackles pointing. This “head-up” display is sometimes performed by females, but it is predominately a male posture, used both to attract females and as an aggressive signal to warn off other males.

In the photograph below, I caught a Grackle displaying with puffed-up feathers. It’s not clear whether his audience is impressed. The second Grackle looks a bit bemused by this performance, as if thinking “What the heck??” The display is another sign of spring and the new breeding season that is quickly approaching.

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Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla)

The most amazing thing about the little birds that visit the feeder is that they can survive at all. Scarcely more than tiny puffs of feathers and a heartbeat, how do they do it? In fact, they have a number of coping mechanisms, both behavioral and physiological, that help them make it through the winter.

The chickadee, for example, changes its diet. In the summer, chickadees prefer insects and other invertebrates, but in the winter, they change to a predominantly seed diet. Seeds may be a more clumped resource, and seeds tend to have a higher fat content than animal matter in winter, thus reducing the physical costs of foraging. Chickadees also cache seeds against periods when food is hard to find. See A Chickadee Never Forgets for more on this.

When it comes to staying warm, size does matter. Conservation of heat can be maximized by minimizing the surface-area-to-volume ratio. Thus, animals in cold climates tend to be bigger than their southern relatives (Bergmann’s rule). An example is the polar bear, which is larger than black bears that live farther south. In this, little birds are at a disadvantage. Species such as chickadees are distinctive for having the highest ratios of feather weight to body mass, averaging 10 to 11% compared to an average of 6 to 8% for other avian species. Also, chickadees have a prolonged molt after the breeding season, which ensures less feather wear and thus greater insulation at the beginning of the winter.

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

In winter, night may be the most difficult time for most small birds because of its colder temperatures and length, combined with a relatively short daylight foraging period. Physiological adaptations allow winter-acclimatized goldfinches to maintain a constant 40° body temperature for up to eight hours at -70° C. To maintain their body temperature in such extreme cold, they shiver intensely and produce heat at a rate four to five times their basal rate. This high level of thermogenic endurance is seasonal. Summer-acclimatized goldfinches cannot maintain normal body temperature for more than an hour in such frigid temperatures.

Chickadees have a different strategy. They utilize a period of regulated hypothermia at night, letting their body temperature drop by as much as 10° C. This reduction in body temperature lowers the metablolic expenditure for the night by as much as 23%. The benefit of this strategy decreases as the size of the bird increases. Large birds would require too much enegy to reheat their bigger bodies to use this system.

The elevated metabolic rates that small birds must maintain through cold nights place a premium on energy reserves. These reserves consist primarily of the undigested food in the crop and other parts of the digestive tract, and fat. Some birds begin roosting with relatively large amounts of seed in their crops. However, the primary energy reserve for most species is fat. In winter-acclimatized goldfinches, fat stores at the onset of roosting are significantly higher than in summer, and may reach 15% of lean body size.

It’s all pretty amazing, but I’m glad I’m inside, sipping hot chocolate and thinking about those poor goldfinches, shivering in the night.

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Dinner is served. Breakfast and lunch, too! With cold weather approaching, I have been getting my bird feeders cleaned and set up for the winter. Birdwatchers can be an obsessive group, keeping a life list, hiking for miles to see that one special species. For the most part, I am satisfied just to let the birds come to me and watch them from the comfort of my home. Especially in winter, when it’s cold and snowy.

Feeding backyard birds has become a hugely popular hobby across North America, second only to gardening. It’s estimated about 1/3 of households make seed available. Considering the huge negative impacts humans have on the lives of birds, the occasional free lunch seems like the least we can do for them.

Supplemental feeding may help weaker birds make it through the winter and allow birds to begin the breeding season in better condition. During extreme cold spells, feeders can help more birds survive as individuals who are unable to find sufficient food before sunset often don’t make it through the night. Feeding birds will not stop individuals from migrating, an urge triggered by daylength. However, over time the availability of widespread supplemental food supplies can impact the winter range of birds. In past decades, the number of goldfinches overwintering in Ontario has grown. Northern Cardinals have also been able to expand their range northward partly because of bird-feeding practices.

I set my feeders up farther away from the house than I would have liked. It’s nice to have the birds arriving just outside your picture window. But proximity to a window can be a deathtrap for birds, who often take off in a rush when startled and fly right into the window. Many birds die this way every year. If the impact doesn’t kill them outright, they may die later from internal bleeding. Placing the feeder away from the house makes viewing less immediate, but is safer for the birds.

Having a variety of feeder types and different kinds of seeds available helps to attract an assortment of species to your yard. As the weather has been unseasonably mild, so far I have had a limited number of visitors, but a steady stream of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) stop by. I put a handful of peanuts in the shell out for them, a sure hit. While the mainstay of my sunflower offering is black oiled sunflower, I also put out some of the larger striped sunflower for larger birds like the jays.

I have a couple of kinds of suet feeders. This log variation has been quite popular. Here, a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), identifiable as a male by the red spot on the back of his head, is helping himself. If you are a keen observer, it is possible to tell woodpecker individuals apart by the pattern of colouration on their heads.

By far the most numerous visitors at the feeders right now are American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). When I first started feeding winter birds a few decades ago, I was puzzled by these drab, olive-yellow visitors. It was a while before I learned that the bright yellow summer birds molt into a less flamboyant feather coat for the winter. Losing their breeding colours helps to signal male birds that breeding competition has ended and lets them come together as a flock. If you want to attract goldfinches, a nyger feeder is your best bet. Goldfinches love nyger (thistle) seed, but also take black oiled sunflower seed.

Another common visitor is the Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapilla). In fact, these jaunty, active little birds are often the number-one most-common feeder bird at Ontario feeders. Chickadees like black oiled sunflower seed, and I usually put out a handful of peanut bits or small redskin peanuts for them as well. They have to beat out the blue jays though.

Most feeder birds visit multiple backyards and still use natural food sources as well, so unless you are in an isolated location, you can take a winter vacation without guilt over hungry birds. One uncomplicated argument for feeding birds goes like this: When you feed birds, you help more birds survive to breed again. More birds will eat more insects, so fewer pesticides are needed. Fewer chemicals are safer for everyone.

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Once the trees drop their leaves, the nurseries that cradled the year’s bounty of baby birds are suddenly revealed. It’s amazing how well-concealed nests are during the summer. Of course, if you pay close attention to the actions of birds, and know where to look, it is possible to find their nests while they are active. However, I have been content to let the birds live their lives in my yard without my scrutinizing of their comings and goings to closely. Consequently, I have daily walked right past nests without knowing they were present until the fall.


Many American Robins (Turdus migratorius) build their nests close to our house in trees and hedges bordering the lawn and driveway. Robin nests are among the easiest nests to identify in the fall. Robins construct very sturdy nests, weaving grasses into a cup and plastering the walls with mud. They are the only builders of cup-shaped nest to employ mud in this fashion, so dried-mud is a pretty sure sign that you are looking at a robin’s nest. The nest pictured at the top of the post was built in a hawthorn tree. The nests above and below are further examples of robin architecture.


The robin who built the nest below included some twine in the construction.


This nest, located in a Amur Maple tree, features a strip of torn plastic. The mud isn’t conspicuous, but I got out the ladder and climbed up to take a closer look. Sure enough, the mud rim can readily be observed. For more on robin nests, see Robin’s Egg Blues.



Another readily-identifiable nest to be found in the bare tree branches is that of the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). Orioles weave a hanging basket that is typically secured at the rim or edges to a drooping branch. It is woven with various plant fibres and lined with fine grass, hair or plant down. The nests often hang in branches over roads, an adaptation, perhaps, of an instinct to build the nest over flowing water. The nests quickly become weather-worn once the trees lose their leaves.


Many nests are difficult to identify once their occupants have departed. Here is a nest with a scenic situation over water. It may have been built by an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus). Kingbirds like to nest on a horizontal tree limb, about halfway between the tree trunk and its canopy. About 25 % of the time, the nest is located over water. Kingbirds build a bulky, untidy nest using weed stems, grass, plant down and rootlets.


The nest below is likely that of an American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). Goldfinches prefer to build their tightly-woven nest in a branch fork. Caterpillar webbing and spider silk is often used to bind the outer rim of the nest.



The builder of this large nest, over a foot across and high up in a larch tree, remains a mystery.


Not all the nest-builders were birds. This nest, possible belonging to Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), has already started to disintegrate.


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The last day of March was dull and gray. At least it wasn’t actually raining, as it was over the weekend. The river level is quite swollen from the recent downpour. But no ice! March left as it came in, like a lamb. The month seemed to go by quickly, carrying us ever closer to warm weather.


The last redpoll was spotted on Saturday. They have headed back to their northern breeding grounds. A few pine siskins linger, but the niger feeder has mostly been taken over by American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). No doubt the goldfinches were happy to see the last of their pushy, querulous cousins. The goldfinches are getting ready for the breeding season too. The males at the feeder look decidedly ratty as their new bright yellow summer feathercoats grow in.


The garden will be a surprise this year, as I wait to see what previous owners have planted. There are no bulbs showing their heads, but a sedum (maybe Autumn Joy), above, is pushing up shoots.


The blades of iris leaves are growing.


A hellebore is struggling to flower. It appears that someone dumped sand over it last fall, thus retarding its growth this spring.

March brought no more than a sprinkling of snow. As we begin April, hopefully I am done with the snow shovel for another year (the new, blue, Christmas snow shovel). Still, I though twice about putting it away. I’ve left it at the ready, just in case Winter isn’t done with us yet. Just in case Winter has one more last-minute snow storm up his sleeve. Why tempt him?


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