Carduelis tristis [Eastern American Goldfinch]
Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1968: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 447-466]
The eastern goldfinch belongs to a group of small, short tailed finches which includes the other American goldfinches and the siskins. These birds are closely related to the redpolls (Acanthis) and have traits in common; they collect in flocks during most of the year and constantly give their characteristic notes as they fly restlessly from place to place. They give the impression of being high-spirited birds, always happy and full of gaiety.
Bradford Torrey (1885) paints this picture of the goldfinch: "Our American goldfinch is the loveliest of birds. With his elegant song, and his more beautiful soul, he ought to be one of the best beloved, if not one of the most famous; but he has never yet had half his desserts. He is like the chickadee, and yet different. He is not so extremely confiding, nor should I call him merry. But he is always cheerful, in spite of his so-called plaintive note, from which he gets one of his names, and always amiable. So far as I know, he never utters a harsh sound; even the young ones, asking for food, use only smooth, musical tones. During the pairing season his delight often becomes rapturous. To see him then, hovering and singing--or, better still, to see the devoted pair hovering together, billing and singing--is enough to do even a cynic good." Roger T. Peterson (1935) says: "The responsibilities of life seem to rest lightly on the Goldfinch's sunny shoulders."
Spring.--Spring is not the goldfinch's spring, in the sense that spring is the beginning of a breeding season, because the goldfinch does not build its nest until summer is well advanced when many of its favorite plants have gone to seed.
Francis Beach White (1937) speaks thus of their arrival in Concord, N.H.: "On arrival in the spring, flocks great or small are likely to cluster in the foliage of large trees, and singing goes on by the hour; one of these flocks was estimated at a hundred birds. In June pairs are seen, and the undulations in flight develop till they give the effect of a bouncing ball. On July 7th, a male gave forth a torrent of song while flying on an even course with rapid wing beats, and then, having perched a moment, left with undulations closely compressed, fifteen feet deep or more. . . .In early July, the sexes are still flocking together, though some have apparently long been paired."
Dayton Stoner (1932) describes the goldfinch's occurrence in New York state in spring: "During the entire month of May flocks of eastern goldfinches are to be found almost everywhere about Oneida Lake, singing, and feeding on the buds of apple or the seeds of elm and other trees. . . . The small isolated wooded tracts and the open fields appeal to it and although a considerable local movement is displayed at this season it is without definite direction or objective. Often small flocks can be seen and heard as they pass high above the extensive wooded area north of Cleveland; they may even stop to rest and feed or sing in some of the trees, but they soon move on again. . . . Throughout June, also, the goldfinch continues its local wanderings, indulging its sociable tendencies and singing blithely in trees and orchards and on roadside telephone wires. It becomes then one of the most noticeable local species of birds."
The following, from my notes, describes a typical sight in eastern Massachusetts in spring: "A gathering of two or three hundred goldfinches, surely 90 percent males, feeding on the ground in a market garden among chickweed plants in bloom. They often whirled away, dozens at once, to telephone wires and the adjoining woods a field away, later returning to the ground again where they alighted with a quick turn. They sang in chorus from the trees."
Courtship.--John Burroughs (1904) describes an attractive little ceremony which takes place in spring: "When the change [in plumage] is complete, and the males have got their bright uniforms of yellow and black, the courting begins. All the goldfinches of a neighborhood collect together and hold a sort of musical festival. To the number of many dozens they may be seen in some large tree, all singing and calling in the most joyous and vivacious manner. The males sing, and the females chirp and call. Whether there is actual competition on a trial of musical abilities of the males before the females or not, I do not know. The best of feeling seems to pervade the company; there is no sign of quarreling or fighting; 'all goes merry as a marriage bell,' and the matches seem actually to be made during these musical picnics. . . . I have known the goldfinches to keep up this musical and love-making festival through three consecutive days of a cold northeast rainstorm. Bedraggled, but ardent and happy, the birds were not to be dispersed by wind or weather."
Witmer Stone (1937) speaks of a nuptial flight: "Occasionally we see a male Goldfinch flying high in the air more or less in circles, and after covering this imaginary track several times he will relapse into the usual undulating flight and drop back to his perch. This performance is apparently a display, incident to the mating season." Francis H. Allen says of the song-flight that "the bird keeps on a level with the wings flapping rapidly and steadily instead of taking the undulating course as in ordinary flight."
Aretas A. Saunders (1938) reports: "On July 27, 1933, I observed what was apparently a courtship flight accompanied by song. The pair of birds was flying about over an open area, not far from a nest discovered later that year. They flew in great circles from 50 to 80 feet from the ground, undulating up and down, and the male singing a long continued song. After circling about several times they flew away, the male changing from song to the ordinary 'perchickery' notes."
I have seen several times a curious modification of this song-flight and find it mentioned twice in my notes: "May 21, 1913. One of four goldfinches, flying about above the trees (good-sized willows), changed from his ordinary flight to a slow, labored flight, the wings moving in leisurely, heavy beats. The performance suggested the flight of a chat when he mounts into the air and dangles his legs. In changing to this labored flight the bird, a male, appeared at once to become twice his former size, for the reason, I suppose, because we now associate slow wing-beats with a good-sized bird." And on July 11, 1913: "A male goldfinch flying above trees, singing. Flight is a series of slow flaps with his wings, giving the impression of a bird as large as a crow seen in the distance."
Nesting.--The goldfinch breeds so late in the season that full-size leaves afford ample concealment for the nest. Walter P. Nickell (1951) made a study covering 264 nests in Michigan during the period 1933-49. The reader is referred to his lengthy paper. The earliest date on which a nest was found containing eggs was July 6, the latest date for a nest containing young was September 25.
Nesting sites were not over 300 yards from feeding areas and the better the food supply, the greater the density of nests. Greatest density was in swamps. The species is tolerant in respect to territorial boundaries. Food seems more important. No nest was far away from an abundant supply of thistle seed. Territory which lacked thistle but which seemed otherwise appropriate was not used. Nickell lists an overall total of 36 species of trees and shrubs used for nesting. L. H. Walkinshaw (1938) supplies, in addition, an ash, Fraxinus sp., and Sassafras variifolium.
Nickell found nests ranging in height from 33 feet above the ground, in a red oak, to one foot in a hawthorn. Nests may be located in upright forks with an average of four vertical twigs evenly spaced to form a cradle. At times one side is unsupported. Another type is held between parallel uprights without support underneath. Another type rests in cradles of twigs on a horizontal branch. A fifth type is saddled over and around horizontal branches and fastened to small horizontal twigs or leaves. In two instances nests were wedged between horizontal forks, held in place by the overlapping of the nesting materials and by attachment on two sides, without support underneath. This nest, thus, resembles the semipensile nests of the vireos. Nests are so durable they will last several years, and so tightly woven they will hold water temporarily. The lining is of soft and warm materials, thinning towards the rim, frequently composed of thistle and/or cattail down. Spider silk and caterpillar webs are used to bind the rim of the nest with bark or stronger material such as grape or hawthorn.
Measurements show quite a range in variation. Nests tend to be deeper than wide, but many show equal depth and width. Average measurements for 79 used nests in upright forks were: 2.3 inches inside diameter; 2.9 inches outside: 1.5 inside depth; and 2.8 inches outside.
Margaret Drum (1939) states the feeding area may be more than a mile distant from the nesting site.
Thomas D. Burleigh (1925) found the goldfinch nesting in Georgia among pine trees, one nest "in a large short leaf pine, sixty feet from the ground and six feet out at the outer end of one of the upper limbs."
Several observers have reported goldfinches building in thistles. Clarence H. Bush (1921) says: "On August 8, 1915, while walking in a pasture containing many large thistles, I noticed a Goldfinch fly into one of these thistles, and later found it was building a nest in it. On August 22, there were five eggs in this nest and the bird was sitting. On this day I found three more nests in this same pasture, all in thistles. . . ." Mary Emily Bruce (1898) speaks of a nesting in an orchard: "The goldfinches had chosen a tiny pear tree quite close to the house, and the nest was barely four feet from the ground." Walter B. Barrows (1912) reports a very odd site--"a nest with two fresh eggs found in a corn shock."
G. M. Sutton accents the close relationship of the nesting site to water; more often than not the nest is over swampy or other wet regions. In Oklahoma he found nests in dogwood, oaks, elm-saplings, dwarf birch, red and sugar maple, quaking aspen, wild cherry, willow, and spirea. Another 20 nests were built in shrubbery along the edges of marshes.
Andrew J. Berger writes of finding a total of 66 nests near Ann Arbor, Mich., during 1955, all of which were built in Crataegus sp. within an area of approximately 19 acres. The nests averaged 50.0 inches above the ground, with extremes of 81 and 32 inches. Of these nests, 21 were destroyed (with either eggs or young), and 3 nests were never completed. In addition, one female incubated five eggs for a minimum of 25 days (but less than 30 days) and another female incubated five eggs for a minimum of 25 days (but less than 32 days) before deserting the nest. Forty nests fledged from one young (1 nest) to six young (1 nest). Berger's data indicate a nestling period averaging 13 to 15 days, but he had recorded periods of 16 and 17 days. Berger writes of finding a nest at Ann Arbor, Mich., on the early date of June 11, 1947. On examination "it was discovered that this nest was a double-storied structure and contained three cowbird eggs in the lower story."
Lawrence H. Walkinshaw (1938) speaks of nest building in Michigan, where the bird used the outer parts of dead branches of hawthorn, milkweed, and chicory. "These were stripped off in short pieces by the female, then carried to the nest. This bark fiber together with the soft downy parts of the milkweed and thistle seeds with a few finer grasses constituted the bulk of the nest. The rim was usually circled with a narrow band of strong fibers which helped apparently in holding the nest together when wet and when the young became older. The lining usually consisted of cottony materials entirely and these nests probably withstand the elements better than those of any of our smaller birds." Later (1939) he stated: "It required 4 or 5 days to build a nest, and a period, averaging at six nests, a little over two days followed before the first egg was laid." He says (1938) that the period of rest may last as long as 27 days. G. M. Sutton points out that the pair shows so little interest in the nest during this resting period that a casual observer might well consider the nest abandoned.
Alfred O. Gross (1938) tells of the building of a nest he found in Maine, "lodged in a three-pronged fork of one of the slender, upright branches near the top of the birches. The birds were not coming frequently with nesting material. The female was the architect but the male invariably accompanied her, serving as guard and offering moral support and encouragement with his song. Sometimes the male brought nesting material but this was usually presented to his mate who packed it firmly into the growing walls of the structure. The work was not rushed but was done very deliberately. As the nest neared completion, visits were made only during the early morning and again in the hour or two preceding sunset. It was an easy task to record their visits since their arrival was always announced by their loud, cheerful notes, especially those of the male. On some of the visits during the latter stages of construction, no nesting material was brought but the nest was thoroughly inspected--the female, resting in the bowl, carefully shaped the structure and rearranged bits of vegetable fibers and catkins which made up the bulk of its composition. There was none of the thistle-down which so frequently is a part of the lining of a goldfinch nest."
Gross (1938) writes: "On July 10, six days after the partially built nest was discovered, the structure was completed. It was a beautiful piece of nest architecture--4 inches wide and 2.5 inches deep, with a bowl 2.5 inches wide and 1.25 inches deep. The walls and bottom were so firm and so compact that they seemed tight enough to hold water."
O. W. Knight (1908) mentions: "As the young get older the rim of the nest becomes lined with a fringe of excrement, which is rather exceptional, for most birds carry away the ejecta of their young and drop it where it will not be offensive." Walkinshaw (1939), in accord, states: "The rim of the nest was very filthy during late nesting life but occasionally both parents removed some of the fecal sacs after they had fed the young."
An atmosphere of happiness, characteristic of this cheerful little species, pervades the nest life of the goldfinch. Gross (1938) brings this out:
The female did all the incubating but she was regularly fed by the male. His coming was always announced by a series of clear, warbling notes. The moment the female heard her mate she assumed a characteristic pose which involved throwing her head back with the beak widely opened and rapidly fluttering her wings. This action seemed to initiate the feeding response of the male. . . .
During the first five or six days [after the eggs hatched] the female brooded the young during both day and night. The major part of the food fed to the young was delivered by the male, who also continued to feed the female during his frequent short visits to the nest. No insects were seen in the beaks of the adults at feeding-time, and all of the food delivered was a semi- digested milky pulp of certain seeds. . . .
Several times the female was seen to stand on the rim of the nest opening her beak and twitching her wings precisely as the young [now ten days old] did, in apparent anticipation of receiving food from her mate. Although the male fed her during the time of incubation and early life of the young, he did not respond to her desires at this time.
Walkinshaw (1938) says: "Evidently the reason that the male circles the nesting area so persistently is that he brings food to the incubating female. As he circles overhead, either she remains silent and he continues, or she utters a sharp, often loud, 'tee-tee-tee-tee' at which he immediately drops to the nest to feed her. This procedure has been observed so often from the blind and at different nests that it cannot be accidental."
Margaret Drum (1939) states that males, initially, do not permit other goldfinches to alight in their territories. If the male is absent the female will drive out other females. Once the male has begun to feed the female on the nest, though, the male makes little or no effort to defend his territory. A nesting study by H. Lewis Batts, Jr., (1948) mentions nests in maples, Acer saccharum and Acer rubrum. While there were four nests, only three pairs of goldfinches were present, and only two nests were occupied at any one time. The male fed the female, but otherwise took no part in nest building, except sometimes to help shape the nest.
Alexander F. Skutch gives the following interesting account of the building of the nest by the female goldfinch and of the subsequent life of the pair at the nest: "On July 31, 1931, I watched a goldfinch building a nest, about nine feet above the ground, on a horizontal limb of a young white pine growing beside a road near Ithaca, New York. The outer shell had apparently been completed, but the lining was still lacking. Between 8:30 and 9:50 a.m. the female brought material eight times; although the male accompanied her, he did not help to build. First she flew up with long fibers that trailed behind her in the air. While sitting in the nest to work them into the lining, she made a continual sweet chirping, answering the calls of her mate who rested not far off. When this material had been arranged to her satisfaction, she flew away and found a white cocoon-case of a spider. After settling in the nest she stuck it to the outer surface, then took it again in her bill while she rotated to the left, applied it to another spot on the outer surface, took it up anew and rotated farther to the left, placed it on the outside and took it up again--and so on until she had made a complete circuit of the nest. As she moved the cocoon from place to place, some of the silky threads, adhering to the first point of attachment, were drawn out to the second, from the second to the third, and so on; thus the strands of cobweb were drawn over the surface of the nest and helped to bind together the materials of which it was composed. Next the female goldfinch brought a great billful of silky thistle-down and deposited it in the interior of the nest. Sitting in the cup, she proceeded to shape it to her breast. She sank down into the ample hollow until only her tail and the top of her head were visible to me above the rim. From the vibratory movements of her body I inferred that she kneaded the materials with her feet, which of course were hidden from view. In all these operations she generally rotated to the left, or counter-clockwise. Whenever her mate was near, she chirped prettily to him without interrupting her labors.
"At a neighboring nest the male goldfinch, who usually escorted his mate when she brought material for the structure, once carried a billful to it, but hardly took the time to arrange it there.
"Between July 13 and August 3 I found, in the neighborhood of Ithaca, eight occupied nests, all in roadside trees except one that had been built at the outside of a small, isolated clump of pine trees in an open field. Six of the eight nests were in young white pines, from eight to eighteen feet above the ground; one was twenty feet up in a white oak; and the highest of all about thirty feet up in a roadside maple. The firm, compact little cups were generally placed well out on horizontal boughs, sometimes straddling the branches; and those in the white pines were situated in the midst of a whorl of branchlets that provided lateral support. One nest that I examined carefully was composed of bits of bark, grass and fibers of various sorts, giving the exterior a dark brown color, while the inside was softly lined with white thistle-down which matched the spotless eggs. Of the nests into which I could look, one contained four eggs, one five, and three held six eggs. At one nest the eggs were laid on consecutive days. By August 3 one goldfinch had just begun to lay, while another had newly hatched nestlings.
"Among goldfinches incubation is performed by the female alone. She sits with a constancy quite unusual in so diminutive a bird, as a rule disregarding trespassing small birds of her own or other kinds, men who move about below her nest and stand or sit without concealment to watch her, and the noisy passage of motorcars if, as often happens, she has built above a busy highway. For food she depends largely upon her mate throughout the period of incubation. She distinguishes him, evidently by voice, from other male goldfinches who fly about the vicinity dropping their little silver coins of sound; and when she hears her partner and is hungry, she calls out from the nest to attract his attention. Then her clear, tinkling, little notes are so sweetly melodious that one not well acquainted with the goldfinch might suppose them to be the bird's song. Once while passing along a road bordered with pine trees, I heard--so I thought--a goldfinch singing, and after considerable scanning of the boughs above me discovered a female sitting in a nest, so well hidden among the pine needles that, had she been silent, I should have passed by without suspecting its presence. Apparently she was hungry and calling her mate to bring food. Thus the pretty hunger calls reveal the nest's position to the goldfinches' friends--and I fear that at times it must also betray it to their enemies. On a small scale, it is like the raucous hunger cry of the incubating female White-tipped Brown Jay, which in the Caribbean lowlands of Central America has led me to nests hundreds of yards away.
"Although it has long been known that the male goldfinch feeds his incubating mate, we have not much information on how often he does this, or how constantly the female, with such support, is able to cover the eggs. To learn something about these matters, I watched a nest situated on the bough of an oak tree that reached out above a shady suburban roadway. My first vigil began at sunrise on July 28. At 5:21, three minutes after I saw the sun's earliest rays, the male goldfinch winged close by the oak tree and the female called softly from her nest. After another three minutes he flew into the oak and the sitting bird called more loudly. He approached the nest with nothing visible in his bill but with his throat or crop well stocked with food, stood upon the rim, and regurgitated to her while she fluttered her partially spread wings like a hungry nestling. After delivering the meal he went away, but returned to feed her at 5:45 and again at 6:56. At 7:10, nearly two hours after sunrise, the female, who for the last few minutes had been fidgeting restlessly in the nest, left it for the first time since I began my vigil. She remained out of sight only five minutes, returned and preened her feathers in the nest-tree three minutes more, then settled on the eggs after leaving them uncovered for eight minutes. When, at 7:30, I went for breakfast, she sat raised up and panting, for a little circle of sunshine found its way through the luxuriant foliage of the oak tree and fell upon her nest.
"The following morning I began my vigil earlier, at 4:52, when the light was barely strong enough to reveal the goldfinch sitting in her nest amidst the clustered leafage. She remained quietly covering her eggs until 5:45, when she began to call loudly in a high, warbling voice. She had heard the flight-song of her approaching mate before I did. A moment later he arrived, perched on the nest's rim and fed her by regurgitation. Again at 7:04 she called out before I heard her mate's voice, but was not deceived, for he soon arrived and fed her, passing about thirty mouthfuls in quick succession. At 7:52 I left her on the nest. She had sat continuously for the first three hours after daybreak, and during this period had received two generous meals from her mate.
"On August 1 I watched the nest from 3:35 to 7:35 in the afternoon. During this four-hour period the female goldfinch sat continuously except for two short absences from the nest, from 4:24 to 4:34, and again from 7:21 to 7:28--seventeen minutes in all. She returned to her eggs from her second recess just as the sun sank behind the crest of the hill beyond the lake. Her mate came to feed her twice, at 4:48 and at 6:14. At the latter hour I saw clearly for the first time just how the feeding was done--on earlier occasions the female's head had been screened from my view by the rim of the nest. The female goldfinch heard her mate's flight-song while he was still far distant, and called at first loudly, then softly and continuously, until he arrived. He stood on the rim of the nest and held his head above that of his mate, who pointed her bill upward to receive his offering. He took her bill in his, and through my glasses I could glimpse the white, viscid mass that he passed to her. Then he lifted his head slightly in order to regurgitate a second portion. He passed her twenty-one mouthfuls in this manner, then flew off for the night.
"During my nine hours of watching the male goldfinch gave his mate seven substantial meals. She took only three brief recesses from the task of incubation, totalling twenty-five minutes, and kept her eggs covered 95.4 percent of the time. Of ten other species of finches that I have watched incubate, chiefly in Central America, none has approached the goldfinch in constancy of sitting. The next best, a Variable Seedeater (Sporophila aurita) covered her eggs only 81.2 percent of nine hours, and she was by far the most faithful of four of her kind whose nesting I studied. All the other finches, big and little, incubated between 60 and 75 percent of the time, during watches that lasted from 6 to 12 hours; a few received occasional morsels from their mates, but none was substantially fed like the goldfinch. Of all the passeriform birds whose mode of incubation I have studied, whatever family, the only one that matched the goldfinch's record of constancy in sitting was the big White-tipped Brown Jay (Psilorhinus mexicanus). Among these birds of the tropical lowlands, the incubating female is fed by her mate and often by one or more unmated helpers in addition."
Eggs.--The goldfinch lays from four to six eggs with sets of five being the most common. They are ovate with a tendency toward rounded ovate, and have very little lustre; they are very pale bluish-white and unspotted. Occasionally, an egg in a set will have a few scattered spots of reddish brown, and rarely an egg will be found well spotted with "vinaceous fawn." Harold M. Holland, of Galesburg, Ill., writes that he has "a set of six eggs, taken locally August 7, 1946, all of which are so thickly and distinctly spotted around their larger ends as to be hardly recognizable, offhand, as goldfinch eggs."
The measurements of 50 eggs average 16.2 by 12.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.0 by 11.5, 18.3 by 13.2, 14.2 by 11.7, and 15.2 by 11.4 millimeters.
Young.--Henry Mousley (1930a) in a careful study of the nest life of the goldfinch stresses the point that the young birds are fed at long intervals, according to his experience much longer than is the case in wood warblers. He remarks: ". . .during the twenty hours I was at the nest, the young were fed on eighteen occasions, nine by the male and nine by the female, at intervals of about an hour, or to be exact, once in every 53.3 minutes. . . ." Checking his observations the following year, he continues (1930b): "It was about 10:30 a.m. when I arrived at the site, and 3:30 p.m. when I left, and during those five hours the young were fed eleven times, four by the male, and seven by the female, or at a rate of once in every 27.3 minutes, thus proving that a much quicker rate of feeding than about once every hour does at times occur."
Salient points in the life of the young goldfinches, as brought out by Walkinshaw's (1939) study of nests in southern Michigan, may be summarized as follows: The body and head at hatching are covered with light grayish natal down. The eyes of some young birds start to open on the second day, but the average date is about 3 1/2 days. Until the age of 6 or 7 days the young made little or no noise in the nest, but afterwards, for several days, they are very noisy when their parents return to feed them. At this stage of their development many more are destroyed than at any other period. They leave the nest between the ages of 11 and 15 days, and by that time they fill the nest to capacity. They often perch on the rim or on the near branches when the day to fly arrives, and some fly as far as 100 feet.
Gross (1938) speaks of the development of the young in a nest observed in Maine. His observations are substantially as follows: "By the tenth day the birds had grown enormously. . . . Feathers on all tracts were at least partially unsheathed, thus offering sufficient protection and insulation to make brooding less necessary. Even at night the female did not cover them, but roosted in the branches nearby. At such times the young huddled down in the bowl of the nest, their bodies producing enough heat to counteract the coolness of the night air." At the age of 12 days the feathers were "unsheathed to such an extent that all the naked parts were concealed. The yellow of the breast-feathers and the tones of olive and fuscous brown gave them an appearance of the completed juvenal plumage save for the tufts of down clinging to the ends of some of the feathers. They had increased so much in size that the little bowl of the nest was scarcely large enough to contain them. . . . The adults and young were seen in the neighborhood for more than a week, and made regular visits to the feeding-shelves and baths provided for them and other birds. I feel confident that all of the six young survived."
Gross gives the incubation period as 12 days; Walkinshaw (1938) as 12 to 14 days; Burns (1915) as 12 to 14 days. Andrew J. Berger writes Taber that the oldest birds in a brood are capable of a strong, sustained flight of 50 yards or more when ready to leave the nest, but will flutter to the ground below or near the nest when disturbed prematurely, as by banding. The smallest bird often leaves the nest at a younger age than those hatched first.
Plumages.--Dwight (1900) describes the juvenal plumage of the young male as "above wood-brown, grayer on crown, yellowish on forehead. Below, including sides of head primrose-yellow brightest on chin, washed on sides and flanks and across the throat with deep buff. Wings and tail dull black whitish edged; secondaries, tertiaries, and wing coverts including two wing bands edged with ochraceous buff the outer greater coverts usually partly white. . . ."
He says that the first winter plumage is similar to the juvenal "but a deeper brown above and the yellow below replaced (except on the chin which is a brighter yellow) by pale olive gray, darkest on the throat and washed with wood-brown on the sides. The crissum and middle of the abdomen are white. Dull black, brownish or yellowish edged lesser coverts (the 'shoulders') distinguish young birds from adults which have them bright yellow, the black of the wings and tail is besides less intense, the wing bands are browner and the chin duller yellow."
The first nuptial plumage is acquired by an extensive prenuptial molt, in April and early May, involving all the contour plumage but not the wings or the tail. "It is interesting to note that the black wings and tail are assumed with the juvenal plumage, the black crown at the prenuptial moult."
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt, beginning about the middle of September, which produces the adult winter plumage, "similar to the first winter but a richer deeper brown above, the crown, throat and sides of breast more distinctly yellow, the edgings of the wings and tail (which are jet black) paler and most important of all the 'shoulders' bright canary-yellow instead of brown. Young and old now become indistinguishable." Adults also have an extensive prenuptial molt, as in the young bird. Adults in spring can be distinguished from young birds of the first year by the yellow "shoulders."
The molts of the female correspond to those of the male, but her plumage is always duller, her wings and tail are browner, and she never has a black cap.
Food.--The goldfinch is primarily an eater of seeds, notably those of the composite family. Among its favorite food plants may be mentioned grey birch, alder, thistle, sunflower, evening primrose, ragweed, and above all, perhaps, the dandelion. It is, however, no uncommon sight to see the birds in spring, when caterpillars are small, picking them from their webs.
William Brewster (1906) says: "The Yellow-birds also subsist largely on the seeds of pitch pines, when these trees are well supplied with ripe cones." O. A. Stevens (1931) reports the bird "feeding upon the seeds of the goatsbeard (Tragopogon pratense)" in North Dakota. Austin Paul Smith (1915), speaking of the bird in Arkansas, says: "While never seeming to lack a ready food supply, this varied much with the seasons. In the fall, favorite food items were seeds of catmint, burdock, ragweed, etc.; in winter, seeds of sweet gum and sycamore; in spring, the unripe seeds of various plants." Hervey Brackbill (1942), writing of Maryland, gives good evidence that the goldfinches rifle small oak galls growing on the twigs of white oaks to obtain a gall maker "at all stages of development--larva, pupa, and adult."
Edward H. Forbush (1913) remarks: "During the spring, when unhampered by family cares, and wandering through fields and orchards, they feed considerably on cankerworms. They sometimes frequent grain fields, where they are said to devour noxious insects, including the Hessian fly. Goldfinches often feed very largely in winter on the eggs of plant lice; this has been observed many times. Mr. Kirkland examined the stomach of one of these birds, and found it contained two thousand, two hundred and ten eggs of the white birch aphis. Chermaphis laricifoliae is an aphis that is common on larches. It deposits great numbers of stalked eggs in April and May, which produce the young lice that feed on the trees in summer. Mr. Kirkland saw a flock of over forty goldfinches going systematically over some infested larch trees, beginning at the top of a tree and working gradually down to the lower branches, then repeating the performance on the next tree."
Mrs. Amelia R. Laskey writes to us that the food of the goldfinch includes flower buds and seeds of elms, seeds from the pods of the trumpet vine, and flower buds. Mr. Brackbill in his notes adds berries of Japanese honeysuckle and seeds of wild aster, burdock, chicory, wild lettuce, evening primrose, woodland sunflower, thistle, and tulip tree.
Charles H. Blake adds buds of the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in late March, young leaves of the European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) in mid-April, and seeds of the goldenrod (Solidage rugosa) in late September.
Mrs. T. E. Winford writes Mr. Bent of watching a number of birds in early March eating the seeds out of rotten apples. H. Lewis Batts, Jr. (1955) mentions seeds of thistle (Cirsium),Cinquefoil (Potentilla), aster (Aster), St. Johnswort (Hypericum), and certain grasses as winter food.
Floyd B. Chapman (1948) reports a case of the goldfinch eating fruit, which is not a common habit. He says that the birds came to feed in a very large June berry tree (Amalanchier laevis) heavily ladened with fully ripened fruit.
Alexander F. Skutch writes to us: "All through the third week of April, 1931, large flocks of goldfinches were present in the woods near my parents' house on the outskirts of Baltimore. Here they fed in the elm trees, which at this period were green with their clustered keys, as though with an earlier and transient foliage. There was more music in their confiding call-notes than in many a bird's song. Hanging head downward from the slender elm twigs, the goldfinches plucked the winged fruits; not, so far as I could learn, to eat the small green embryos, but to extract a little white larva, about a millimeter in length, which infested many of the fruits and caused them to take on an abnormal, irregularly swollen aspect. The birds deftly bit the larvae out of the husks, then let the keys flutter to the ground, until large quantities were strewn beneath the trees where they had been feeding."
Economic Status.--Forbush (1929) summarizes the economic status: "The Goldfinch is generally regarded as a beneficial bird. Its only injurious habit seems to be the destruction of seeds of cultivated sunflowers, cosmos, lettuce, etc., which is sometimes so serious to the seed grower that he is obliged to take measures to protect his crops."
Behavior.--The goldfinch is an active little bird, always in the best of spirits. It has a definite personality exemplifying light-hearted cheerfulness, restlessness, sociability, and untiring activity. It seeks the company of its own species and, in the winter, that of its relatives, the siskins and redpolls, often moving about with them in large flocks, roving over the fields, feeding together in the birches and alders and among the weeds protruding above the snow. When we come on a lone goldfinch it seems out of its element; it gives a long, sweet call, and appears to look about for companions or to listen for them, and when it sees them or hears their voices in the distance, it goes bounding away to join them. Its flight is deeply undulating; it flies along as if riding the waves of a stormy sea, giving, as it rises to each crest, its little phrase of four happy notes.
Aretas A. Saunders (1929) summarizes the habit of the bird in the Adirondack Mountains, N.Y.: "The Goldfinch is not a bird of the forest, but prefers more open country with scattered trees. It lives in orchards, among shade trees, along roadsides, and about the edges of forests." Lawrence H. Walkinshaw's (1938) studies were made in Michigan "on an area of approximately thirty-five acres. . .constituting a ditched marsh with its scattered groups of willow, dogwood, buttonbush, other shrubs and small trees, together with a narrow bordering highland also sparingly covered with shrubs, small aspens and occasional larger trees."
Wiliam Brewster (1906) speaks of the bird's former occurrence in Cambridge, Mass., and the effect upon it of the introduction of the house sparrow: "Goldfinches used to breed nearly everywhere in and near Cambridge; in shade trees along our city streets; in orchards throughout the farming country; most abundantly of all in the maple woods and willow thickets which once covered so large a portion of the Fresh Pond Swamps. Within the past fifteen or twenty years they have ceased to nest in localities where English Sparrows have become abundant. . . ."
Margaret M. Nice (1939), reviewing her own experience and the available literature on the territorial behavior of the goldfinch, concludes that the bird seems to show a "sociable tendency."
Chreswell J. Hunt (1904) speaks on feeding behavior: "I noticed last winter a marked difference in the manner in which the Goldfinch and Tree Sparrow procure the seeds of the evening primrose when feeding upon the stalks sticking above the snow. The Goldfinch flies to the cluster of seed-capsules at the top of the stalk, and clings there while it extracts the seeds with its bill. The Tree Sparrow, on the other hand, alights upon the stalk and shakes it vigorously--making the seed rattle--until it has shaken out a number of the seeds, when it drops down to the snow and picks them up." Alexander Wilson (1832) remarks: "During the latter part of summer they are almost constant visitants in our gardens, in search of seeds, which they dislodge from the husk with great address, while hanging, frequently head downwards, in the manner of the titmouse."
Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) reports an interesting note on roosting: "At sunset of a winter's day, late in January, I found one of these birds anxiously flitting about a small pine grove on Heartbreak Hill, alighting at the bases of the trees, and finally popping into a hole about a foot deep in the snow under a stump. Frightened from there, it flew about nervously for a few minutes, but at last returned to the same hole close beside which I was sitting motionless. As it was so nearly dark, I had not been sure of the bird's identity, so I tried to catch it in my hat, but it escaped. It finally cuddled into the protected side of a footprint in the snow, and was there easily captured by my companion. It was evident that the Goldfinch had been searching for a protected hole in which to pass the night--a safe place in that region as the snow showed no mark of prowling animals. I have recorded this, for observations on the sleeping habits of birds are few."
Mr. Skutch says in his notes: "On the evening of July 27, 1931, while walking toward my lodgings, I heard about sunset the chicoree of goldfinches in flight, and looking upward saw several males tracing their undulations over the lawns between the houses. They had no particular destination, but circled round and round in an irregular manner and doubled back and forth, always rising and falling as is their wont; only it seemed to me that the hills and valleys they described in the air were steeper and deeper than usual. As they ascended each invisible hillside in their path, they voiced the characteristic flight call; and once one of them burst into full song while on the wing. I watched these pretty maneuvers for about five minutes when gradually the birds drifted out of sight, perhaps to continue their play in other regions. I call it 'play' because they did not appear to be hawking insects--their flight was too rhythmic for that, yet for a number of minutes it took them nowhere. They seemed merely to rejoice in an exhilarating aerial sport."
G. M. Sutton states he has seen a number of times a bird fly deliberately into a net close to a bird already netted and calling. When netted birds gave plaintive cries, other goldfinches flew into the net two by two. On one occasion he had 12 birds to extricate at once.
Charles H. Blake writes that when feeding from gray birch catkin the goldfinch does not as a rule perch on the twig to which the catkin is attached and rarely braces the catkin with a foot.
Walter P. Nickell (1951) comments on the peculiar behavior of abandoning many nests before completion, or at times after completion but before egg laying. Occasionally, nests with eggs, or even with young, are abandoned. He has seen goldfinches dismantling nests of the Baltimore oriole and yellow warbler, and using the materials in its own nest.
Voice.--Aretas A. Saunders *** says the song of the goldfinch is a sweet, sprightly, high-pitched one. Most of the time a single song is rather short, but there are occasions in the spring when birds sing long-continued songs, or songs of indefinite length. Often birds will sing together in a chorus. There is, perhaps, greater variation in the detail of song in one individual bird than one finds between the songs of different individuals. The song consists of short notes, groups of such notes on the same pitch, two-note phrases, occasional short trills, and rather rarely slurs. The number of notes per song, omitting the long-continued songs, varies from 7 to 11, averaging between 12 and 13. Songs vary in length from 1 1/2 to 3 3/5 seconds, averaging about 2 seconds. Pitch varies from F#6 to E7.
The pitch interval varies from one to four tones, averaging two. Individual birds sing different songs, one after another, up to at least 7. In spite of the great variation on the part of one bird, there is a general likeness between songs of different individuals, and Mr. Saunders doubts that a person could identify an individual bird by the peculiarities of its songs.
In the spring, just after the prenuptial molt when the birds are still in flocks, a dozen or more birds may sing at once. At such times songs tend to be of the long-continued type. This type is often used also during the courtship period when a pair circles around with undulating up and down dips of perhaps 20 to 30 feet. On such occasions the male sings constantly while in flight. After nests are established the male simply sings from a perch, giving one short song after another. Frequently, song is over for the year before the young leave the nest.
The flight call popularly described as perchickaree and the sweet, upward slurred sei silieeee often are mixed with the song. There are other minor notes. There is the conversational twit or tee-tee-tee, a reduced flight call, perhaps, heard from feeding flocks. There is a lower toned, roughened ggee given in a moment of animosity, which rarely ruffles the tenor of the goldfinch's peaceful nature--"pleasantly quarrelsome" my notes say--suggesting a call of the snow bunting. I once heard a curious low-pitched note, perhaps a modification of the song, which was spoken rather than whistled, repeated quickly several times, and followed by tee-tee-tee notes, suggesting the song of the short-billed marsh wren. The note of the young bird, heard often in autumn, sounds like chipee, with the accent at the end. It is a pleading, insisting cry.
The song may begin in March before the prenuptial molt is completed, but it most commonly commences in April. Mr. Saunders' earliest record in Connecticut for a 35-year period is Mar. 15, 1936; the latest, May 1, 1938. The average date is between April 6 and 7. His latest record is Aug. 31, 1942; the average for last songs being August 27. In Allegany Park the last date was Aug. 28, 1935, and the average date, August 15. Mr. Saunders also has a number of records of songs during autumn. He has three November records, the latest being Nov. 20, 1926.
Brand (1938) gives the mean vibration frequency as 4100, with the rather wide range of 7400 and 2750.
Enemies.--In addition to attacks by predators to which small, defenseless birds are subject, several accidents, dangerous or fatal to the life of the goldfinch, have been reported. For example, a goldfinch was killed by an aircraft more than 1000 feet above the ground (V. H. Brown, 1945); a dead goldfinch was found entangled in burdock (B. S. Bowdish, 1906); a bird was immeshed in a spider's web (George H. Mackay, 1929). John Burroughs (1886) tells the following experience: "One day, in my walk, I came upon a goldfinch with the tip of one wing securely fastened to the feathers of its rump by what appeared to be the silk of some caterpillar. The bird, though uninjured, was completely crippled, and could not fly a stroke. Its little body was hot and panting in my hands, as I carefully broke the fetter. Then it darted swiftly away with a happy cry."
Herbert Friedmann (1929) says that the goldfinch is a "fairly common victim" of the cowbird. "At Ithaca [N.Y.], a region where this species and the Cowbird are common, and where many nests of this bird have been found, there are no cases on record. Dr. A. A. Allen, whose observations on this region extend over a long period, has never known of a Cowbird laying in a Goldfinch's nest, and my observations tend to show that the laying of the Cowbird is on the decline at the time when the Goldfinch starts to nest in numbers. Eaton (1914), however, lists this bird as one of the common victims of the Cowbird in New York, so evidently there is considerable variation locally. . . .
"Occasionally this species covers up the strange egg after the manner of the Yellow Warbler. . . .
"I have found records from Montreal, New England, New York, and Ohio, west to Indiana, Illinois, and North Dakota, and south to Oklahoma."
Walter P. Nickell (1951) mentions finding a nest infested with mites. Arthur A. Allen (1934) states young may drown in the water-holding nest. D. A. Zimmerman (1954) mentions 33 birds found dead on highways.
Winter.--In the parts of the country where it stays the year round the goldfinch is one of our most attractive winter birds. In the countryside about Boston, Mass., for example, we may see them, a hundred together, loosely associated with tree sparrows or more intimately with redpolls, collected in open fields feeding on weeds above the snow. Here they sometimes exhibit a habit common in birds thus gathered together; the whole flock progresses in one direction across the field by the birds in the rear successively flying to the front, over the heads of the others, seeking an advantage over their companions. In spite of this rivalry, however, a spirit of harmony and friendliness seems to pervade all the company. Perhaps the restlessness of the birds and the likelihood of their leaving the vicinity at any moment add to the charm of these gatherings, for at an instant, the whole flock may whirl up and fly away, perhaps out of sight and hearing.
In the winter flocks, goldfinches show so little difference in plumage that it is probable that the sexes are segregated, at least for the most part at this season.
R. J. Longstreet (1928) reports a remarkable observation. On Dec. 22, 1927, at Daytona Beach, Fla., he saw "a large flock of Goldfinches. . .flying northward back of the sand dunes which line the ocean beach. . . . In the 100 minutes of actual counting at a given station, it is estimated that at least 6400 Goldfinches were seen. Inasmuch as the flight extended from at least 7:40 a.m. to 12:20 p.m., or 280 minutes, an average of 50 birds per minute (which seems conservative), gives a total of not less than 14,000 Goldfinches in the movement. How many passed before 7:40 a.m. and after 12:20 p.m., and how many passed too far to the west to be seen, can only be conjectured."
Carduelis tristis [Eastern American Goldfinch]
Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
*(Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland and collaborators (compiled and edited by Oliver L. Austin, Jr.). 1968. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 447-466. United States Government Printing Office)
# Ornithological Council: the Ornithological Information Source