Where are my Goldfinches?

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A question I am frequently asked is where are the Goldfinches? Have they migrated? The American Goldfinch is a year round resident of Kansas. It is the only member of the family Fringillidae that molts twice a year. It molts in the spring, usually around April when the male grows the striking yellow feathers and black wings and black cap on top of his head, and the female changes into a lighter yellow-brown color, but not as bright as the male. In the fall, usually in September, the male loses his black cap and bright yellow color and becomes an olive green or yellowish brown, and the female a soft yellow-brown. But they don’t go anywhere, except maybe out in the woods or to your neighbor’s house because you, thinking they were gone, quit feeding them. They do seem to be a little scarcer in April and September, but this is thought to be because they are more secretive when they are molting, and in the fall, they form flocks rather than the small family groups they hang out with in the summer.

American Goldfinches are late nesters. Most experts believe this is because the thistle plant matures in summer, not spring. Goldfinches depend on the seed of the thistle for food, and the thistle down (fluffy dandelion-like stuff) for a soft lining for their nest. Our hummer helper nesting material is great to offer for the finches. They usually lay eggs in early August. Incubation is 12-14 days and the young leave the nest at 11-17 days.

Nyger Flower (Guizotia Abyssinica). Click to enlarge!Because thistle is considered an invasive weed and is controlled by the US Department of Agriculture, a similar looking seed called Nyjer (pronounced NY-jer) is used in its place. It is a small black seed, just like thistle, and the inner meat is moist and oily, much like a walnut meat. This replacement has been marketed here for about 40 years. Some distributors still call it thistle to avoid confusion, but it is not the purple or pink flowering native weed that we know as thistle. The Nyjer seed flowers are yellow (see picture) and it is cultivated in India, Nepal or Ethiopia and imported. The USDA requires that all Nyjer imported in the US be heat treated for 15 minutes at 250 degrees to devitalize any weed seeds. We believe this heat treatment also causes the seed to dry out after 6 to 8 months. So if you are feeding your Goldfinches the Nyjer (or thistle) you had left over from last year, and they are not coming to your feeder, this may be the reason. Goldfinches also eat sunflower meats, and other small seeds found in the wild.

Male Goldfinch in summer plumage eating sunflower, shot out our back window. Click to enlarge!Todd and I live in the country and we can’t seem to keep the Goldfinches coming to the feeder in the summer months. As soon as it greens up in the spring they leave only to reappear in the fall in small flocks and stay all winter. They are usually the first birds at the feeders on winter mornings. What they lack in color in winter, they certainly make up in sheer numbers. Watch for Pine Siskins in the flocks of Goldfinches. They are also a type of finch and often travel together with the Goldfinches. At first glance, they look very similar to the Goldfinch, but if you look closely, you will notice a streaked breast and belly, and some streaking on the back and wings and they have yellow on the wings and tail. We had alot of pine siskins in the area last year. They are a winter resident that arrives in October and departs in May. A few pairs occasionally remain to nest. So if you’re missing your Goldfinches, they probably haven’t gone very far away. Feed them and they will come.

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