For the Birds: Goldfinches delight year round

Photo by Chris Bosak An American goldfinch perches on a wire in New England, March 2020.

I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about goldfinches lately. Everything from how to attract them to why am I suddenly seeing more of them to why do some of them seem much duller than other ones.

To answer the question about how to attract them, you have to start with Nyjer seed. Nyjer seed, also sometimes called thistle, are the tiny seeds that are a fraction the size of a sunflower seed. Birds such as goldfinches, pine siskins, and indigo buntings love Nyjer seeds. It is hard to imagine there is a whole lot of meat inside the shells, but apparently, it is enough to satisfy the smaller birds.

Goldfinches also prefer tube feeders. If you get one with several ports there will be times when all of the perches will be occupied by goldfinches. So the best way to get goldfinches is to offer Nyjer seed in tube feeders.

But that is not the only way to attract goldfinches. Goldfinches will also eat sunflower seeds and visit hopper or platform feeders. They will also eat Nyjer seed from a mesh “sock.“

Goldfinches will also visit flowers such as sunflowers, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans. But you have to wait until fall to see them eating those seeds. Goldfinches will also readily visit birdbaths. In fact, they are one of the most frequent visitors to my birdbath.

As to why some of them look different, that is a somewhat tricky question. The obvious answer is that females are duller and males are brighter. However, a goldfinch’s plumage is constantly changing and some males may be ahead of others in obtaining their breeding plumage. 

Even males are drably colored in the winter and slowly gain their famous bright yellow feathers by the spring. This week, I have seen some goldfinches that are already fully decked out in their splendid yellow. Others are still splotchy with some bright and some dull plumage.

Well-known ornithologist David Sibley has a great article with photos, or more accurately drawings, of what a goldfinch’s plumage looks like each month throughout the year. The article can easily be found with an Internet search by entering “goldfinch monthly plumage” in the search field.

Females are duller in color year-round. Like other dimorphic birds (male and female have different appearances), females are more dully colored to offer protection from predators. The flashy males attract the attention of predators and cause a diversion away from the females on nests.

I have always had decent luck attracting and finding goldfinches. There are certain birds I just can’t seem to find, but goldfinches, thankfully, have never been one of those problematic species.

Goldfinches are also nomadic. If you have goldfinches throughout the day, it is likely that you are seeing more than one group of goldfinches. Perhaps that explains why some people are seeing more of them lately. The goldfinches have only recently discovered the feeding station.

Goldfinches are a favorite bird of many people, and with good reason. They are striking with their bright yellow plumage, they are common backyard inhabitants, and they are year-round New England residents, not fair-weathered friends. What’s not to like? 

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