For most birds that spend the summer in our area, August is a relatively quiet month. Courtship, nest building, incubation, chick-raising are finished chapters in the annual cycle. It’s a time to ensure that the next generation is finding its way in nature, as adults and offspring will separate soon, probably forever.
But there is one local species that starts and ends its breeding cycle later than others: the American goldfinch (Spinus tristis). The delayed start has nothing to do with laziness or diminished capacity, but rather with the materials the goldfinch uses to build its nest. The bird relies heavily on the fibrous seeds of plants like thistle and milkweed as building material. It must wait until those plants grow, bloom, and develop seeds with fluffy down that it weaves, along with fine grasses and rootlets, into a small, deep cup that is so tight it will hold water.
Goldfinches are birds of open country rather than forests. They locate their nests usually in shrubs or saplings, where several branches form a junction. On winter walks in local fields, I frequently spot the distinctive cups about waist high or higher, often in the branches of red osier dogwood. It always surprises me that, as soft and pliable as the plant down is, the nest feels remarkably firm and compact.
Thistles and other seed-producing plants are important to the American goldfinch in another important way. They are the primary food source for both adults and young. Goldfinches differ from most species in that they are almost entirely vegetarian. The majority of songbirds nesting in the Barrington area feed their hatchlings larvae and insects early on, even if their eventual diet will be mostly seeds or berries. But the American goldfinch eats seeds, largely from plants in the composite family, such as asters, sunflowers, thistle, and from grasses and some trees. That preference makes it easy to attract the species to backyard bird feeders where it has a special fondness for Niger thistle and sunflower seed.
I would put goldfinches into the decidedly unscientific category of “happy birds.” Its lilting song, sunshiny plumage, and characteristic bouncy flight pattern combine to make it a cheer-producing sighting for birdwatchers.
Male goldfinches still retain their bright yellow body feathers that contrast with the jet black cap and black and white wings and tail. But soon they will begin to lose – or molt – that lemon plumage for a duller yellow-gray that the female sports all year, and will retain the muted color until the following spring. Both sexes molt twice each year, the only members of the finch family to do so.
It’s easy to find American goldfinches in the Barrington area. As I sit outside writing this profile, several have come to the birdbath under an oak tree. I can hear their cheery notes from an adjacent prairie slope. Local preserves where you can expect to spot and observe goldfinches – often in groups – include Citizens for Conservation’s Grigsby Prairie and Flint Creek Savanna, Barrington’s Baker’s Lake Savanna, Lake County’s Cuba Marsh and Grassy Lake preserves, Cook County’s Crabtree Nature Center, Deer Grove, Spring Creek and Poplar Creek Forest Preserves. When you spot one, be sure to watch to see if you can determine what it’s doing and just what differentiates it from other birds you’ve watched.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.