Worth their weight in gold

The Island seems overrun with goldfinches right now, according to the author, and that suits him just fine: they're one of his favorite birds — Photo by Matt Pelikan

If there is one of our songbirds that’s impossible to misidentify, it might be a male American goldfinch in breeding plumage. The bird’s tail, wings, and crown are black; everything else is yellow, the sort of intense, Forsythia-flower yellow that leaves a mark on your retina in bright light.

Regrettably, male goldfinches only bear these flamboyant feathers for half of the year, acquiring it during a later winter molt. In late summer they molt to resemble females and juveniles, still bearing yellow tones and showing the pattern of dark wing and tail feathers contrasting with the body, but missing the fire. Goldfinches in dull plumage are as nondescript as the breeding males are unmistakable; somehow, a female or off-season goldfinch manages to suggest a host of other species, without actually looking like anything in particular.

A common question I get at this time of year, therefore, is of the “what peculiar warbler do I have at my feeder?” genre. The bird in question is small, indeed warbler-sized. It has a pointed bill that might suggest a warbler’s. And its plumage shows just enough yellow to suggest a bird in the “confusing fall warbler” branch of the business.

But goldfinches are, true to their name, in the finch family, a large group of seed-eating specialists quite remote from the warblers. Consider that pointed bill, for example. True, it’s as sharp as a warbler’s. But unlike a warbler’s beak, designed to pluck soft insect prey out of flowers and foliage, a goldfinch’s beak has a stout base and is actually designed for crushing seeds. In fact, insects barely figure in a goldfinch’s diet. In natural settings, these birds apply their fine-tipped, conical beaks to pluck individual seeds from the spent heads of flowers. At feeding stations, a goldfinch beak is even up to the task of crushing sunflower seeds.

Goldfinches are true to their family, also, in their vocalizations, which are plentiful and varied (one folk-name for this widespread species is “wild canary”). Courting male goldfinches unleash an astounding barrage of whistles and twitters in the course of display flights that may last for several minutes. But even in winter, these birds are talkative, calling frequently when in flight and often twittering softly as they feed. High-pitched and often shrill, the notes of this species are distinctive and often heard before the singing bird is in sight.

Especially in winter, goldfinches are gregarious birds, often moving around in flocks that number in the dozens. Such a flock can pick a feeding station clean in no time, then abruptly take wing and move on to the next source of food. Overhead, a flock of goldfinches is loose and disorderly. Individual birds are plump and short-tailed, and their flight has a distinctive, undulating pattern to it: a burst of wing beats propels the bird upward, and then a pause in flapping allows it to drop down again. Many other birds, including other finches and most woodpeckers, exhibit this flight pattern. But combined with a goldfinch’s small size, plump shape, and twittery flight notes, the roller-coaster flight makes these birds easy to recognize.

The movements of this species are unpredictable, and the abundance of the goldfinch varies widely from season to season, or even over the course of a few weeks during a single winter. Goldfinches are migratory, but untidily so; in any given area, it seems, some birds leave for the winter while others remain. Many migrants clearly pass through the Vineyard in the fall; this species is common out at the Gay Head Cliffs at the Island’s southwestern tip, where migrants tend to concentrate. Flocks of goldfinches are among the birds that can be seen heading off south or west over the water. But some birds, either transients or residents here, linger, and in a typical winter, goldfinches remain common on the Vineyard for the duration.

Look for this species in weedy meadows, along the edges of agricultural fields, along roadsides, or along woodland edges — anywhere an abundance of seeds exists. But goldfinches show little aversion to human activity and are also common in yards. They’ll industriously pluck seeds from the dead heads of coneflowers in your garden. And if you put out bird seed, you can count on goldfinches as visitors. Thistle seed is their favorite, with shelled sunflower seeds a close second, but there are few kinds of seeds a goldfinch won’t happily crush and swallow. You’ll rarely see just one goldfinch: a promising source of food will often attract a flock.

It’s hard not to think of these as cheerful birds, with their incessant chatter and their apparent pleasure in crunching seeds. Add that to their puzzling migratory habits and the dramatic seasonal change in the plumage of males, and the goldfinch ranks as one of our more interesting birds. Keep an eye peeled for them — just don’t mistake them for warblers!