Friday, February 5, 2010

Death of a Goldfinch

Yesterday we found this deceased American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) on the back deck. Did it hit the window? Did it have sudden heart failure and drop out of the sky? The answer has not been forthcoming. Still, not one to let any deceased thing pass by unnoticed, I brought it in and snapped a few photos. While one can be saddened by the death of a fellow traveller on this good earth, such events allow us to take a good close look at those we usually only encounter at a distance.

Based on the still rather olive-drab coloring of the feathers, we believe this is a female. Already the males are starting to look a bit brighter.

The double white wing bars are usually quite visible, especially on the males when they are in their breeding plumage. The rest of the wing is a beautiful black, which contrasts stunningly with the male's brilliant lemon yellow feathers. Even on the duller females, the wings are rather lovely.

A buffy-grey belly also suggests that this is a female. In the winter her belly is described as a "dirty white" - almost as if she hadn't boiled her linens in quite some time.

I happen to find the tail to be quite striking. Unlike many songbirds with flat or rounded tails, the goldfinch has an almost swallow-like tail.

This has been a goldfinch winter in Newcomb, kind of like my first winter here was. It seems somewhat appropriate, seeing as how this may be my last winter here.

The trees at home are filled with goldfinches off and on throughout the day. They flit from tree to feeder to ground to tree, no doubt making the rounds of all the feeders in the neighborhood. While the bird feeding stores and books encourage bird feeding enthusiasts to purchase nyjer for these small finches, you will find that they just as happily consume the cheaper black oil sunflower seeds. In fact, I find they eat more sunflower seeds than least at my home.
Goldfinches, also known as wild canaries, are generally birds of open areas: weedy fields, orchards, roadsides, backyards (and front yards), farmer's fields. No doubt this is because these areas support their favorite food, the seeds of "weedy" plants such as thistles, mullein, teasels, and asters. While seeds make up the majority of the goldfinch's diet, it also eats insects (especially good for rapidly growing nestlings), tree buds, maple sap, and berries. Overall, however, this bird is designed to be a seed eater. It's conical bill, and super flexible feet enable it to get seeds from sources other birds can't access. It is not uncommon to see a goldfinch hanging upside down on a flower or bird feeder, or even a hummingbird feeder as it sips water from the ant trap.
I remember as a kid watching as half the dandelions in the yard suddenly took wing and disappeared - goldfinches happily eat dandelion seeds. It was then, too, that I learned that these cheery little birds are one of the latest nesters we have - the male doesn't begin his courtship routine until late July. This is probably because, as seed eaters, food sources are not as abundant in the spring. Seeds are not only necessary for sating the appetites of hungry nestlings, but the down of many summer plants, like thistle, milkweed and cattails, is used to line the cup-like nests. An interesting factoid I just found out about goldfinch nests is that they are so tightly woven that they can actually hold water! As you can imagine, this could be a death knell for nestlings if the weather brings heavy rain storms, but even so, it is impressive.
You can always tell if you have a flock of goldfinches in the neighborhood for they fly with a dipping, undulating motion. And as they fly they sound like they are calling "potato chip, potato chip, potato chip."
New Jersey claims the goldfinch as its state bird. Could anyone ask for a more cheerful mascot?


  1. So THAT'S where all my goldfinches went! You have them all. I haven't seen a single one at my thistle-seed feeder this winter. The siskins chased them away last winter, and now the siskins have disappeared as well. Sorry to see your dead finch. Last year, our siskins were getting sick and dying because of an infection that was spread by dirty feeders.

  2. What do you mean last winter!?

    Where are you going?

  3. Never mind, a little bit of research and I quickly found the sad news of the VIC's potential closing. What a loss if it comes to pass! Good luck and hopefully NY can get its act together and save the VIC's!!!

  4. Woodswalker - yes, we have 'em all! But they are about all we have this winter. I've heard rumor of a few siskins nearby, but I haven't seen any this year myself. We've only had about four purple finches (see the post I'll be putting up today), too. This morning, however, we are swamped with evening grosbeaks!

    Callsign222 - yes, we are slated for closure. Because of the nature of such things, I've begun looking for a new job. It would be great to be able to stay in Newcomb, but the reality is that a move to somewhere else is most likely. I'm looking at that as a new adventure, though - a chance to start over and maybe try something new. You never know.

  5. By romantic ornithomancy, this is very unfortunate both for you and the Goldfinch!

  6. Finchwench - I zipped over to check out the romantic ornithomancy, and all I can say is "whew - I'm glad it wasn't Valentine's Day!"

    For those wondering what this means, over at the romantic ornithomancy page it says that what ever species of bird a woman first slaps her eyes on on V'tine's Day will tell her what kind of man she will mary. A goldfinch indicates a wealthy man. My goldfinch was dead...not a good omen. Like I said, thank goodness it wasn't V'tine's Day!