The Not-So-Golden American Goldfinch

Winter is a great time to get into bird watching and bird feeding. You can spend time exploring new places to hunt down that elusive owl or you can put up a bird feeder in your yard and let the birds come to you.

A goldfinch. (Photo via Shutterstock)

One of our common backyard birds is the American goldfinch. American goldfinches live in Illinois all year round. Identifying them is relatively easy, but you do need to think about the season. Goldfinches don’t follow all the rules. They have some interesting quirks that set them apart from our other local birds.


Coloring outside the lines


Even if you aren’t a bird enthusiast, I bet you can picture what goldfinches should look like based on their name. If you think they are gold, you are right, but only for half the year. In the spring and summer, male goldfinches are bright yellow with contrasting black, making them stand out and impress the ladies. They also have a black on their heads, making them look like they are wearing a black baseball hat. Female goldfinches lack that black cap and are overall a duller yellow and olive color.


Unfortunately, that bright gold color doesn’t last forever. They are the only finch that molts twice a year. Come fall, the males shed their bright gold and go for a duller color in the winter. Even the females become paler in the winter. Even though they have lost their color, they do have fresh feathers to keep them warm all winter long. In late winter, they will molt again, ready to shine bright. Seeing gold-colored male goldfinches is a good sign that spring is on its way!


Roller coaster junkies


These birds have a unique flight pattern, making them recognizable as they fly by. They dip up and down like they are riding big hills on a roller coaster. They don’t keep quiet about their wild ride either. Overall, they have six different calls. The most iconic call sounds like they say “po-ta-to-chip!” Paired up male and female goldfinches are known to make identical flight calls. Take a listen.


Strict diets


American goldfinches take the vegetarian lifestyle very seriously. They are granivores, meaning they eat mainly seeds. A great way to attract goldfinches to your yard is planting their favorite flowers.


Plants in the Asteracease family will do the trick. This family includes sunflowers, thistles and asters. Make sure you plant native species for best results. If you are filling a feeder, they prefer nyjer seeds and black oil sunflower seeds.


Late bloomers


American goldfinches are one of the last birds to breed each year. They nest in summer instead of the beginning of spring. This is all tied to their favorite plants. By July, milkweed and thistles are producing seeds. They need those seeds to feed their young. The fluffy plant down from the seeds also helps create the perfect nests. The female builds a cup-shaped nest using plant fibers, spiderwebs and the plant down made by the seeds.


Become a bird nerd


Now that you know about their changing colors, you won’t be fooled by the duller American goldfinches in the winter. Attract finch friends to your own yard by putting up a feeder.

Goldfinches at a feeder. (Photo via Shutterstock)

No yard? No problem! Visit our feeders! Monee Reservoir, Plum Creek Nature Center, Isle a la Cache and Four Rivers Environmental Education Center all have bird-feeding areas that will give you a good view of these unique finches. During the winter, each facility will have interactive signs guiding you on how to identify the birds you see. Plus you can scan the posted QR code to start a list to record your observations.


The feeding stations are part of the Forest Preserve District's bird feeding and watching initiative featuring interpretive signs, QR codes and roving naturalists who will educate visitors about all things birds.

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