American Goldfinch, a journal

I now have a 6-generation-clan of resident American Goldfinches at my Maine home.

This story began developing in 2011, as I became concerned about American Goldfinches I was seeing at my feeding station remaining throughout the year.  Were they that hardy that they would readily withstand Maine winters?  I did not recall seeing them in past Maine Winters.  In 2013 they were most frequently seen at my feeders with Purple Finches.  Both species are highly social and both my groups were what I would consider to be quite large; i.e. at least 20 birds each.  But the Purple Finches disappeared when the weather got nasty here……..probably sometime in November, although I did not note the date. Then, a comment was left in my page titled “Nature’s Way”, questioning the justification of feeding these little birds throughout the brutal Winters.  Steven Majors comment was a perfect reflection of my own concerns.  And by the time his comment was posted, I had been seeing the American Goldfinches for several years. So I began to come up with some answers:  I checked the American Goldfinch range map from several references, including Cornell’s All About Birds.    As with many migratory bird species, there is a Nesting, Breeding (Summer) Range, and then a Winter Range.  And there is an area where the two overlap, that we will call the Year-Round Range.  Southern Maine (where my feeders are) is within the American Goldfinch’s Year-Round Range. Steven had rightfully pointed out that some people think that by feeding these birds, the person is jeopardizing  their survival, because they are influencing the bird’s decision to remain a resident or fly South.  It is that simple.

And make no mistake, some individual(s) within any group make(s) a decision to stay or go…..and the rest follow. After I learned that my feeding area is in the Year-Round Range,  I knew I could argue this from a different perspective, i.e. they are going to stay this far north anyway…..if they can, so I am going to feed them.  Or, if I do not feed them, their chances of survival are greatly diminished.

If you check out my Photo Gallery (by clicking that link) you can see in some of the captions in the passerine bird folder, that I never let my feeders go empty….never.  I am in my 66th year and have been observing and studying nature my entire life and through the years I have noted that very often, people allow their feeders to go empty. 

If you make a commitment to the birds, once they find food at a feeding station, they expect to find food upon their return. Yes, if my property lies within the American Goldfinch’s Year-Round Range in Maine (and it does!), THEN THE AMERICAN GOLDFINCH IS BREEDING RIGHT HERE.  Animals do not decide that in any particular year or geographic, that they will not breed.  They have no control over this.  Breeding is hormonally driven, set in motion largely by the length of day, but also influenced by daily tempertures and expected food availability.  There is no doubt that American Goldfinches are breeding here and staying here throughout the year.  Maybe some do leave in the Fall; but I am sure that some stay….between 20 and 30 birds. But my heart still goes out to any little birds this winter, because (regarding temps) it seems it has been a particularly harsh one.

I’ll bet that most of nature’s secrets have remained undiscovered and I will always be searching for the answers. THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN IN MID-JANUARY, 2013:  I’ll bet you that as Winter begins to loosen its grip, I will again begin to see that large group of AGF’s returning to my feeding stations.  And I am not referring to Spring necessarily, but rather when Winter temps “soften” considerably.  It is now mid-January and the softening of those brutal winter temps is several weeks away….at the Jan/Feb juncture.   Then, you will be proven correct Steven; i.e. they were here all Winter but in surrounding areas.  Again, I think that they hold up in areas of very thick evergreen vegetation, to assure that no wind can reach them.  And we are beginning to learn that some passerines have the ability to regulate their metabolism, thereby requiring less food at certain times.

COVER:  Wildlife has three very basic requirements:  Food, Water and Cover.  The most critical time of the year around here for the American Goldfinch is undoubtedly the dead of Winter.  My feeding stations are within feet of a thick Holly bush (evergreen) but I do not have a real thick stand of say…..young hemlocks.  It can be argued that I need more winter cover right next to the feeders.  What I am saying is that for my Goldfinches to feed at my stations, they must expose themselves to the elements.  In normal weather this is not a problem.   But when I consider that I am within the Year-Round Range of the AGF, a problem for them begins during the brutal winter temps.  Add wind on those real nasty days………and I am certain that these birds do not move from their cover. I will stay focused on this and let you and the other readers know what is happening.

UPDATE:   On January 27, 2013, I noticed several AGF’s at a feeding station.  I watched each bird take off with its seed, to a distant apple tree.  To my surprise, on that apple tree I counted over 20 American Goldfinches, and probably closer to 30.  There is no doubt that they had been here all Winter. As I noted before, Winter temps in this latitude begin to “soften” just about at the juncture of January and February…..every year!  It is unlikely that there will be another Arctic Trench (brutally cold temps), as I like to call them, for the remainder of Winter 2013-14. I suspect that I will now see “my” bunch of American Goldfinches much more frequently than I did throughout December and leading up to January 27, 2013. But in Maine, there is a trade-off;  brutal Winter temps for more snow.  No, I am not fancying myself as a Meteorologist.  But in Maine at least, February is more of a Snow Month than January.  We can expect heavier snows in February than what we experienced in January.   So, I expect that any big storms will negatively effect the AGF appearances here, but because of the milder temps, I feel they will return to the feeders much more quickly following storms.  We will see if this is what happens. I searched for more information on all of this and found one man (Bob Duchesne) who has been observing these birds his entire life.   Here is his link and an excerpt from that link: “Goldfinches love Maine and will stick around all winter if Mother Nature allows it. Too much snow or too much chill drives them south. They are familiar to backyard bird feeders, and they are partial to thistle seed, also called nyjer. Their wandering habits can drive feeder watchers nuts. The well-stocked thistle feeder can hang for months, ignored, and then suddenly be swarmed.”……… Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at ________________ This page was first posted on February 4, 2013. Following is posted on Oct 6, 2015: Over the last 2 years I have been gradually converting some of my lawn area into a native wildflower garden. Presently, I have converted an area of only about 20 by 30 feet. I live in suburbia and do have to be mindful of the possibility of a neighbor starting a campaign with the City of Portland to make me stay with a lawn. I doubt such an effort would succeed and like to think that folks around here do tolerate the “roughness” of the wildflower look. I think it is important to continue to maintain a “clean” look by continuing to mow and trim the remaining lawn areas and to frequently tend to the wildflowers. I do both and so, am frequently seen doing both. I use the new area as a personal, micro nature refuge and photo set.male American Goldfinch ripping into one of my sunflowers. Here are two of the best images showing how the American Goldfinches relish the seeds of the Sunflower. They zealously tear into the flower heads to get at those seeds._RLK4834crop


American Goldfinch: Unique Among Our Songbirds.

Over 95% of our songbirds must feed their young on a diet consisting of over 90% insects. No insects = no baby birds.

But the American Goldfinches are granivores and the adults feed their nestlings mostly regurgitated seeds from plants such as the Nyjer and Sunflower. Cornell University’s Avian Research Lab states that the American Goldfinch is one of the strictest vegetarians in the avian world. Apparently the male AGF is a softy because he will feed his young fledglings for as long as it takes for them to let him know that they no longer need to rely on him. They do it by simply stopping that hounding peeping of theirs and by not chasing him around anymore. Another unique aspect of the AGF’s life history is that it nests later than any other North American bird….much later. This is because seeds of plants are not largely available until at least late Summer, and more likely into the early Fall. The adults of all the species I have known try to synchronize their breeding so that the young hatch when food is most abundant. And that makes sense doesn’t it? On the first weekend of October 2015, I heard an odd, weak bird-calling that I vaguely remember hearing in recent years but not in recent months.

The single turkey that now visits my place daily was also perplexed by the sound. _RLK6361_RLK6337 croppedThe turkey stopped and froze in one position, listening for that sound. It cocked and re-cocked its head, remaining frozen in various positions, trying to locate the origin of the sound. Go ahead and click onto each turkey image to see how beautiful this bird’s plumage is. Then click it again to really blow it up! Wow!

As I marveled at the turkey, my brain searched its archives to connect the sound to a species, while my ears tried to locate it. I knew that was futile because with my hearing deficiency I often have great difficulty locating faint sounds. The archives came forward and I suddenly realized that I was listening to the call of recently fledged AGF’s pestering their father to feed them. Wow!…..I thought, I know they nest late but the first week of October for fledglings? Finally, I spotted several fledglings that were now hounding their father to feed them.

The year before (Fall 2014) I watched as an AGF fledgling, with no self-control, flew right into its father as he was attempting to feed two of the intruders siblings. The impact disconnected the siblings from their father, while the intruder got its way and took the place of its sibling, as the parent bird fed it. Now if you really want to see a spectacle of nature, just click onto this image of the fledgling begging its father and look closely at the relationship between these two. That tells the story. BTW, this is the little one that knocked its siblings off the branch moments before, and got the father’s total attention. _RLK1053-2

These AGF fledglings are rambunctious little birds as they compete with each other for their father’s feedings. All the while they constantly peep for the father’s attention. Last weekend (first week Oct 2015) I vainly tried to record a short video clip as I watched them hound their father as they constantly peeped for his attention. It’s crazy. Literally, they chase the poor guy around constantly (LOL). He is immensely patient with them. I have never seen him flee from his fledglings. He always feeds them. According to the references, he will do so until each stops its peeping, indicating that it has started to feed on its own. There really is no mystery to it around here. I mean I have plenty of seed for them to feed themselves. It is right in front of them and they can see their father pick up the seed and give it to them. I think they are so focused on being fed by the parent father, that they just do not pay any attention to anything else. And then somehow they finally catch on to what has been right in front of them the entire time. They begin picking the seed out of the feeder by themselves. The young of most (if not all) of our bird species chase their parents around and rapidly flap their wings in front of the parents, to get the parent to continue to feed them. So, once the fledgling AGF’s stop pestering their father, I cannot tell an adult female from a fledgling at the feeder. Because I also have a slight color deficiency in my vision.

March 22, 2017:  For about 1 week I have been seeing plumage changes.  The males are developing patches of yellow.  

_DSC6224          _DSC6226



 April 8, 2017:  This bird is alone on the tree where the group congregates.  For several minutes it perched in this position and called, as I tried to capture just one image of its bill open.  This image is the best I could do.  I believe the calling represents its efforts to find the group, which was at this tree for this morning up to this point and has been at this tree for weeks now.  

INTRASPECIFIC COMPETITION:  Members within the clan of American Goldfinches I have, frequently engage in very short arguments at the bird feeder.   As pretty as they are, AGF’s do not hesitate to charge at each other, as they drive away competition for the sunflower seeds.  They even do this to the opposite sex and during the courtship season.   I have a group of about 3 resident Black-capped Chickadees who use this feeding area year round and so frequent the feeder with the AGF’s.  Right at the feeding ports, the BCC’s avoid contact with the AGF’s, waiting for an opening on adjacent twigs.  If the BCC gets too close, the AGF will lunge at it.  

This is interesting because the BCC’s I have here scold me when I get in the vicinity of the feeder and often will remain inches above the feeder, as I am inspecting the ports, unaware of their presences.  The AGF’s would not dare to remain this close to me.  

Also, the AGF’s have become accustomed (conditioned) to the sounds of my window opening and the camera’s shutter bursts.  The BCC’s do not tolerate this at all.  In fact, they rarely tolerate the sight of me inside the house attempting the get images of them while they feed, almost always opting to grab the seed and head off to a more remote area to chisel it into pieces, swallowing each bit.   


February 23, 2018: This morning I noticed a patch of bright yellow is beginning to show, on the throat, maybe upper breast of one of the American Goldfinches.  I should also note that yesterday was the warmest day on record for southern Maine.  It seems to me that we will have an early spring, though there should be a winter storm or two still.  I believe it will be a dry year, possibly a drought.  If it happens, it will have occurred two years in a row.




Robert King

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