On the birding trail: Searching for the Gold (finches)

“What happened to all my goldfinches”? or “My goldfinches are eating me out of house and home” are probably the two most common phrases I hear at Jay’s Bird Barn. Let’s talk a about our local goldfinches.

We have three species of goldfinches in the Verde Valley. The least common (we might even say rare) is the Lawerence’s goldfinch. The Lawerence’s goldfinch is found in oak grasslands. Usually in small flocks and sometimes in mixed flocks with other goldfinches. I’ve only seen two in a mixed flock in 24 years of living in the Verde Valley. I first noticed its very distinct song. It is much more warbling than the other goldfinches. Its coloration is also distinct – a black forehead with patches of yellow on the breast and wings. The back is a soft gray with yellow patches on the flanks and wings. It breeds along the southern California coast and into the Baja. They can migrate through or winter here in the Verde Valley.

Another uncommon goldfinch is the American goldfinch which winters here. This is the goldfinch most popularly pictured on birding calendars or birding cards because of their brilliant yellow belly and back with dark black wings and forehead. Unfortunately during the winter they are not in their breeding plumage. In winter their feathers are reduced to a drab sable brown. They can be distinguished from other goldfinches by their very distinct buffy wing bars. Look for them on your thistle socks or wire mesh feeders in mixed flocks this winter.

The most common goldfinch in our area is the lesser goldfinch. The male typically has a black cap with a bright yellow breast. Sometimes the back can look more green and sometimes quite black. We call these subspecies the green-backed lesser goldfinch or the black-backed lesser goldfinch . When the male flies you can see white “windows” on the underside of each wing. The females are paler yellow than the males with slight wing bars. Lesser goldfinches are the smallest finches - only four and one-half inches long. Their song is quite metallic, almost a burblely wheez. They chatter incessantly to each other. When their song is played back in slow motion one can actually hear them mimicking other bird songs. Their song has been described as a mockingbird on speed -a very fast, high pitched imitation of other bird songs. The lesser goldfinch is a resident bird meaning it lives here year round. It typically produces two broods each year. One after the winter rains as the spring wild flowers are going to seed and again after the summer monsoons as the late summer wildflowers and weed seeds proliferate. During these nesting periods we get the comments. “My goldfinches have left. Where have they gone?” Nesting is a quiet time. Females are on the nest incubating, feeding occasionally. The males are securing the territory, and helping to feed the female while she is on the nest. Then the young hatch, and fledge and there is once again a feeding frenzy at your thistle socks or wire mesh feeders. This is when we get the comments. “The goldfinches are eating me out of house and home” All the young are learning that your house is where the smorgasboard of free thistle seed is. They tell their cousins, aunts and uncles about your house and suddenly you can’t keep enough thistle in your feeders. They also like to eat Mexican hat cone flowers, gallardia, desert marigolds, dandelion, thistle, pigweed, sunflower, and other weed seeds. The buds of trees such as cottonwoods are popular.  They also like berries and will eat aphids and caterpillars, or feed them to their young.  The Lesser Goldfinch is attracted to salt deposits and water sources. I notice the lesser goldfinch always come to the flower seed heads during or just after the rains. They like how the moisture softens the seeds.

Watch your thistle feeders through the seasons and you will tune in to the ebb and flow of the lifecycle of goldfinches. If you are really paying attention you might even distinguish an American goldfinch at your thistle feeder this winter.

On another note, Jay’s Bird Barn is hosting our annual Wild Bird Photo Contest. We are accepting 8.5 X 11 photos (unframed/unmatted) through the month of September. Customers will vote on their favorite photo during the month of October. Prizes will be awarded Oct. 29. Come in and pick up a flyer about the contest or call for more information!

Dena is a seasoned naturalist, birding guide and educator. As manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona she is available to answer questions about wild birds and enhancing your backyard habitat. You may contact her at (928) 203-5700 or dena@jaysbirdbarn.com.

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