The Gregarious Acrobat

By Lynette Anderson, Belwin Conservancy Naturalist

American Goldfinch

Swooping down, bouncing up, flitting side to side!

This is the whimsical dance of the lively, yellow bird we call the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis). It is this bird, particularly the male, that we watch for eagerly in spring to herald the coming warmer weather as his plumage changes from drab brown to brilliant yellow.

As a member of the Fringillidae, or Finch family, these birds have conical, sparrow-like bills and often have short, notched tails. Birds in this family are social and vocal. They will gather in groups while feeding and migrating, often perching at the tops of trees to announce their place in the world. ‘

In Minnesota, we are lucky to have these plucky birds with us throughout the year. They are common visitors to our feeders and can be seen in weedy fields and forest edges. Their undulating flight patterns are a joy to watch.

American Goldfinches are granivores, which means they only eat seeds. For this reason they delay their nesting season to late June or early July when Milkweed, Thistle, Aster and other plants have produced their fibrous seeds which are incorporated into the nests and fed to the nestlings.

The nest is an engineering miracle, typically completed in only six days! After choosing a site together, the female begins by using spider silk to lash the foundation to branches or plant stalks a few feet off the ground. Then she weaves a tight, open cup of rootlets and plant fibers, finishing with a soft lining of fluffy down, or “pappus,” from the same plants that provide food.

She lays two to seven eggs and sits on the nest during incubation for about 15 days. The male brings her undigested food, which he spits into her mouth. After hatching, the roles reverse and the male stays with the nestlings while the female chases intruders away and brings food to the young. Food for the young consists of regurgitated seed.

Born naked or with very few feathers, it only takes eight days for the young to be independent. The nestlings become fledglings in 11 to 17 days and will stay close to their parents for another three or four weeks. When they are 11 months old, they are able to breed and raise their own young.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch can live for seven to 10 years, but typically only live three to six years due to predation.

These lovely, lively birds are common throughout their range. Their song is a sweet and happy sound. Look and listen for these gregarious acrobats the next time you are out for a walk. These beloved and familiar birds will bring a smile to your face.

Members: Join us on the third Tuesday of each month for a Sunset Prairies Hike at Stagecoach Prairies. Park in the lot off 11th Street South. Our next hike is August 15 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

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