Goldfinch are July Nesters

by Dave Hanks

Why do goldfinch nest so late, when other birds are finishing up the raising of their broods? Goldfinch are thistle dependant birds and must wait until the thistle blooms. The plant matures in July, and the bird builds its nest out of the fibers and down of the thistle’s flower. The nest is usually built in the fork of a tree branch at 4 to 15 feet above the ground. The female does the work, and she does it so well that the cup will hold water.

Four to six pale bluish-white eggs require two weeks to incubate. The male will feed the female as she sits on the nest. When the eggs hatch, thistles have gone to seed. The parents eat those seeds and the partially digested seeds are milk-like (similar to dove’s milk) – and the chicks are nourished on this semi-liquid fare. Goldfinch are granivorous (grain or seed eaters), but they will feed insects to their young. They are not aggressive toward predators, but will give an alarm call. Snakes, hawks, weasels, squirrels, magpies, and feral cats all pose a threat to both the young and the adults.

Goldfinches are gregarious during the fall and winter, and gather in large flocks. At this time they have also lost their brilliant breeding colors – no longer the bright yellow that distinguishes their species.

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

American Goldfinch waiting for a turn at the nyjer (thistle) feeding sock

Lawrence’s Goldfinch

by Dave Hanks

This goldfinch is colored differently from what you would expect from a member of the goldfinch group. Nevertheless it is attractive, and a species that we feel is important to have in our files. It is also a species that one would have to visit Southern California to see – and then it would require some luck to find.

Just north of Bakersfield is a valley – a valley at a much higher elevation than Bakersfield. It is the Lake Isabella/Kern River Valley. Many species of birds are there during the April/May spring migration. If you keep going up the Kern River road, which is on the west side of the valley, you will get into the mountains and forest campgrounds. Further up is the Sequoia National Park. On the east side of the valley is a bird research station. The station feeds birds and has nesting houses which House Wrens and Western bluebirds utilize. Many other species come to their feeding stations. A major reason that we went to this valley was to see Red-Breasted Sapsuckers and LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCH. We thought the goldfinch would be at the bird seed – but no, they did not do what we expected them to do. They were there, but not at the feed. My wife saw them close up (without a camera), but they seemed to avoid me. Discouraged, we moved to a campground on the west side. There they were sitting calmly in a tree – just asking for their pictures to be taken.

Look for a small 4 to 5 inch gray bird with a black face, yellow breast, yellow lower back and rump, black wings with yellow bars, and a short forked tail.

This bird breeds in the woodlands of California and the Baja. Its nests are usually single but sometimes in colonies over 10 or more. While the female builds the nest, the male just follows her and sings. It’s amusing that many women would say: “That’s just like a man”. While the female is on the nest, the males will form small flocks and leave the rest up to her. This uncommon, small finch is highly erratic in its movements from year to year – which makes it difficult to study.

 Lawrence's Goldfinch perched on a limb

There he is – finally!

AMERICAN GOLDFINCH: Thistle Bird

This common, brilliant yellow bird is trimmed with black. It is sometimes referred to, by non-bird watchers, as a wild canary. It is very abundant in Cassia and surrounding counties. It is also very recognizable in summer when all decked out in breeding plumage. During winter, it is harder to identify because its colors have been greatly modified. Most birds in its family molt just once a year, but the American Goldfinch does so in fall and also in spring before the breeding season.

Goldfinches are seed eaters and can readily be attracted to feeders at all times of the year. They especially prefer thistle (Niger) seed. In fact, thistle is important as nesting material and they can often be seen perched in a patch of this infamous plant. It is a late nester – waiting until late June or July when the thistle comes into bloom. Though monogamous during a nesting cycle, the female (after producing her first brood) will leave the male the responsibility to raise the chicks. She will then take a new mate to produce the next crop.

Five inches long with black wings and a black crown contrasted against a bright yellow body makes identification easy. However, females lack the black cap. This bird is very gregarious and will usually be observed in a flock.

Special socks can be purchased to hold Niger seed, which can also be purchased, and you can watch these birds hanging upside-down on the sock picking out the tiny seeds.

American Goldfinch

Resting in the shade outside our window