Goldfinches in winter plumage a pleasure to find

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By Sylvia Brockner

A pleasant surprise this past week was a letter to the Canyon Courier with photos enclosed of some American goldfinches at a feeder. The photos were taken by Bud and Sandy Madigan at their home feeder in the Upper Bear Creek area. The photos helped me identify the birds.
American goldfinches are not too easily identified in winter. Their winter plumage is not distinctive, especially in the black-and-white print that was sent to me by the Courier. However, the two light wing bars are distinctive in these little olive drab birds. The plumage of both the male and the female are much alike in winter and very similar to the female’s summer plumage. If the birds continue to visit the Madigans’ feeder, they will be able to watch as the males begin to acquire their yellow summer plumage. They will slowly change their body colors to a bright golden yellow, their wings and tail will remain black, and they will acquire a little black cap on their heads.
I am very fond of these little birds. Most books use such terms as joyous, happy and merry when describing them. Most of the year, they travel in small happy-go-lucky flocks, rollicking about the countryside. Their undulating, rollercoaster flight is distinctive and their flight song of “per-chick-o-ree” makes one think of a group of happy children at play. Watch for them at your feeders for if they are in the area, as winter snow buries their weed seeds, they will surely turn to feeders where black oil sunflower seeds are available.
As spring arrives, they will acquire their full yellow plumage and the winter flocks will break up into nesting pairs. They nest in shrubs along the edge of pastures or forests or in small trees. Their nests are well constructed of plant fibers and down. The inner nest is almost always lined with thistle or dandelion down. For this reason, they nest later than most birds and in many areas they are commonly called thistlebirds. Don’t worry about their bringing the seeds of thistles to your yard for they usually nip off the seed to eat it before they bring the down to their nest.
The eggs hatch in about 12 days, and the young are fed for another two weeks or so, but there is not much known about their nesting in Colorado. After the young leave the nest, they start traveling about in family groups and are often joined by other families. You seldom see one or two goldfinches alone for they are so strongly oriented to flock life that they spend most of their life in flocks, only being separated during the brief nesting period.
Goldfinches range all across America and southern Canada. They winter in the southern states and in northern Mexico.
These birds are almost as acrobatic as chickadees. They will gather in thistle patches to feed and hang upside down if necessary to reach their prized food. They are delightful to watch and prefer the small black oil sunflower seed, which is easier for them to handle.
The Madigans also have a flock of 50 or more evening grosbeaks coming to their feeders daily. Their activity probably alerted the goldfinches to come see what the attraction was, and of course, once they found the feeders full of sunflower seed, they stayed to dine. Since both of these species are flock birds, they seem to get along well even though the goldfinches are much smaller.
A few years ago, I was going out my driveway one day and was amazed to see so many dandelions blooming on my leach field. As I came closer, the dandelions suddenly flew away. They weren’t dandelions at all, just a flock of summer plumaged goldfinches having lunch on my grass seed.