Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Goldfinch
Nature Bulletin No. 461-A   September 9, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

One of the most conspicuous songbirds is the Goldfinch, often called Wild Canary because the male, except for his black forehead, wings and tail, is bright lemon yellow and has such a sweet ecstatic song. It is a bird of the open places and so fond of companionship that, except while nesting, they are usually seen in flocks and, like robins, have little fear of people. With their bouncing flight, they seem as light-hearted and gay as butterflies.

The goldfinch belongs to the largest family of birds which includes the cardinals, towhees, grosbeaks, buntings, our native sparrows, and other finches. All of them have short stout cone-shaped bills and are primarily seed eaters. In spring the goldfinch eats the seeds of last year's weeds, the tender buds of trees and shrubs, and many small insects. In summer and fall, when the fields are crowded with dandelions, thistles, asters, goldenrod and many pestiferous foreign weeds -- all composites -- it feeds mostly on seeds.

Of all our birds, except for those that raise a second brood in summer, the goldfinch is the last to nest and raise a family. Very few nests are started before July and the number being built, or containing eggs or young, reaches its peak about the middle of August. The compact cup- shaped nest is constructed of the silky fibers of milkweeds and fine grasses or strips of bark from weeds, and usually lined with thistledown. Because of this habit and its fondness for the seeds of thistles, the goldfinch has been given another common name: Thistle Bird. However, those that nest unusually early may use the down from cottonwood, willow, cattails, dandelions, or other plants.

Goldfinches will nest in a wide variety of shrubs and small trees, if they are growing in the open sunlight, but seldom more than 8 or 10 feet above the ground. In August they frequently build in the crotches of tall sturdy weeds such as the bull thistle, Joe Pye Weed, wild lettuce and even golden rod.

The female usually lays four, five or six bluish white eggs and, until they hatch, she is fed by the male who ejects partially digested seeds from his crop. The nestlings are fed by both parents in the same manner, and it seems likely that the abundance of suitable seeds in July and August is responsible for the late nesting habit of this songster..

During the courtship and before the nest is started, the male goldfinch has a canary-like song, difficult to describe, which he warbles from the top of some tree. During the nesting period it is also sung during a hovering hesitant night near the nest. When swinging along on his typical undulating flight, his song sounds like "per-chic-o-ree. .

The goldfinch is common from ocean to ocean and as far north as Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia. In autumn the males, except for their black wings and bright yellow shoulder patches, become a uniform olive-brown like the females and the goldfinches migrate in large flocks to the Gulf Coast states or Mexico. They are not uncommon here in winter. The principal spring migration occurs between the last of April and the last of May.

This is the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington.

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