Birds – American Goldfinch

(Spinus tristis) Finch family


Length—5 to 5.2 inches. About an inch smaller than the English sparrow.

Male—In summer plumage : Bright yellow, except on crown of head, frontlet, wings, and tail, which are black. Whitish markings on wings give effect of bands. Tail with white on inner webs. In winter plumage : Head yellow-olive ; no frontlet ; back drab, with reddish tinge ; shoulders and throat yellow ; soiled brownish white underneath.

Female—Brownish olive above, yellowish white beneath.

Range—North America, from the tropics to the Fur Countries and westward to the Columbia River and California. Common throughout its range.

Migrations—May. October. Common summer resident, frequently seen throughout the winter as well.

An old field, overgrown with thistles and tall, stalky wild flowers, is the paradise of the goldfinches, summer or winter. Here they congregate in happy companies while the sunshine and goldenrod are as bright as their feathers, and cling to the swaying, slender stems that furnish an abundant harvest, daintily lunching upon the fluffy seeds of thistle blossoms, pecking at the mullein-stalks, and swinging airily among the asters and Michaelmas daisies ; or, when snow covers the same field with a glistening crust, above which the brown stalks offer only a meagre dinner, the same birds, now sombrely clad in winter feathers, cling to the swaying stems with cheerful fortitude.

At your approach, the busy company rises on the wing, and with peculiar, wavy flight rise and fall through the air, marking each undulation with a cluster of notes, sweet and clear, that come floating downward from the blue ether, where the birds seem to bound along exultant in their motion and song alike.

In the spring the plumage of the goldfinch, which has been drab and brown through the winter months, is moulted or shed—a change that transforms the bird from a sombre Puritan into the gayest of cavaliers, and seems to wonderfully exalt his spirits. He bursts into a wild, sweet, incoherent melody that might be the outpouring from two or three throats at once instead of one, expressing his rapture somewhat after the manner of the canary, although his song lacks the variety and the finish of his caged namesake. What tone of sadness in his music the man found who applied the adjective tristis to his scientific name it is difficult to imagine when listening to the notes that come bubbling up from the bird’s happy heart.

With plumage so lovely and song so delicious and dreamy, it is small wonder that numbers of our goldfinches are caught and caged, however inferior their song may be to the European species recently introduced into this country. Heard in Central Park, New York, where they were set at liberty, the European goldfinches seemed to sing with more abandon, perhaps, but with no more sweetness than their American cousins. The song remains at its best all through the summer months, for the bird is a long wooer. It is nearly July before he mates, and not until the tardy cedar birds are house-building in the orchard do the happy pair begin to carry grass, moss, and plant-down to a crotch of some tall tree convenient to a field of such wild flowers as will furnish food to a growing family. Doubtless the birds wait for this food to be in proper condition before they undertake parental duties at all—the most plausible excuse for their late nesting. The cares evolving from four to six pale-blue eggs will suffice to quiet the father’s song for the winter by the first of September, and fade all the glory out of his shining coat. As pretty a sight as any garden offers is when a family of goldfinches alights on the top of a sun-flower to feast upon the oily seeds—a perfect harmony of brown and gold.