American goldfinches are small songbirds that eat seeds with their sharp beaks. They are best known for the bright yellow feathers on males during the summer breeding season. They have yellow or gold feathers on their throat, upper back, and belly. Their wings, tails, and the tops of their heads have glossy black feathers. Adult females, juveniles, and males in the wintertime are not as brightly colored. They are olive brown on top and olive yellow below. Their wings are a dull brownish-black color. American goldfinches weigh 11 to 20 g and have wingspans that are 19 to 22 cm long. (Audubon, 1841; Clement, et al., 2010; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Mobley, 2009; Peterson and Peterson, 2008; Wilson, 2001)
American goldfinches live all across North America. The farthest north they live is in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Quebec, and southwest Newfoundland. In the central United States from coast to coast, they live year-round. They spend the winter in southern states and down into Mexico. (Eastman, 1997; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)
American goldfinches live at the edges of forests and plains. They like weedy fields and floodplains, farms, roadsides, orchards, and gardens in the suburbs. They live in areas overgrown with small shrubs. They especially like areas that have plants such as thistles and asters. (Fenimore, 2008; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Peterson and Peterson, 2008; Semenchuck, 1992)
In the winter, males and females form mating pairs. Males use their bright feathers to attract mates. They also show off to females with different flight routines. Females usually choose one male to mate with, but sometimes mate with one or more others afterwards. American goldfinches usually mate once in a season, but sometimes lay two sets of eggs in the same season. (Audubon, 1841; Knight and Temple, 2006; Marsh and Dawson, 1986; Mobley, 2009; Rosen and Tarvin, 2006; Semenchuck, 1992)
American goldfinches usually start building nests in late June or early July, which is later than many birds that are closely related to them. They build nests a few feet off the ground from twigs and branches found nearby. Females lay 2 to 7 eggs, which they keep warm for 15 days until they hatch. While females are sitting on the nest, males bring them food they have eaten but not yet digested. When the chicks are born, they are usually naked or have just a few feathers. They weigh only 1 g on average. After the chicks hatch, males take on most of the responsibility for looking after the chicks. Females chase intruders away from the nest, forage for food, and return to feed the chicks through spitting up undigested food. After 8 days, chicks are able to be independent, but they stay close to their parents. They can fly in 11 to 17 days, usually about 14. Even after they leave the nest, they rely on their parents for 3 to 4 more weeks. When they are 11 months old, they are able to breed and raise their own young. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009; Soffer, 1997)
Females lay the eggs and keep them warm for 2 weeks until they hatch. After the chicks hatch, females are able to leave the nest more often because males help take care of feeding the chicks. Males also defend the pair's territory using different defense calls. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Rosen and Tarvin, 2006)
American goldfinches can live 7 to 10 years in the wild, but they usually live only 3 to 6 because of predators. The longest recorded life of an American goldfinch in the wild was 10 years and 5 months. Males usually live longer than females. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; de Magalhaes and Costa, 2009)
American goldfinches are social and generally found looking for food in small groups. They are active during the daytime. They mostly fly but can also hop and walk. When flying, they alternate flying upwards and swooping down lightly, which makes it look like they are bouncing or dancing as they fly. When they are around other American goldfinches, they copy their calls and fluff up their feathers. They are nomadic, meaning that they move around a lot within the same area. Most of them migrate between different summer and winter locations, depending on now far north they live. (Eastman, 1997; Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Mobley, 2009)
American goldfinches communicate with each other mostly by songs and calls. They have 6 different types of calls, which are named: contact calls, threat cries, alarm and distress cries, courtship calls, feeding calls, and songs. Contact calls are the most common and sound like "tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit" or "po-ta-to-chip." Their song is common during the summertime, and sounds like "rambling" or "warbling." They can communicate just as easily while flying as they can while perched on branches. When they feel distressed or threatened, they have a different call. Young American goldfinches make a begging call when they are hungry. Adult males also communicate visually to attract mates, using both the colors of their feathers and special flight patterns. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009)
American goldfinches mostly eat seeds as well as weeds and sometimes pine cones. They like to eat seeds from grass, thistles, and other low-growing plants that don't have woody stems. They prefer to eat seeds while perched on top of a plant but also eat seeds from the ground. In the winter, there is less food available, so they get a lot of their food from feeders in parks and backyards. They will also eat insects if they happen upon them. (Bonta, 1994; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)
American goldfinches are preyed upon by blue jays, eastern garter snakes, American kestrels, and weasels, and also by domestic and wild cats. They make a defense call, but are not aggressive towards their predators. (Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979)
Brown-headed cowbirds are parasite birds that lay eggs in the nests of other birds, including American goldfinches. This happened in 9.4% of American goldfinch nests in 1979, but no brown-headed cowbirds actually lived to fly out of American goldfinch nests. American goldfinches also get some internal parasites, which are avian trichomoniasis and a protozoan parasite that causes an intestinal infection known as coccidiosis. (Mansfield-Jones, 1995; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)
American goldfinches aren't known to cause harm to humans. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009)
Birdwatchers enjoy seeing American goldfinches at their feeders. (Soffer, 1997)
American goldfinches have stable populations. The IUCN Red List classifies them as "least concern." They are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.
American goldfinches are the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.
Stephanie Nicholas (author), Radford University, Catherine Kent (author), Special Projects, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University.
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