Bird Watcher's General Store

Goldfinches - 06/04/04


Dear Bird Folks,

Some of the goldfinches visiting my feeders seem to have their summer clothes on by mid April; others are still looking pretty drab and disheveled into early May. Do the early dressers have any courting advantage over the procrastinators? And speaking of courting, do some birds use my birdbath and feeders as a kind of singles bar? I get the impression some of them, mentioning no names, hang around for more than just birdseed.

-Hal, Orleans

Nice Hal,

I like a nice long question. The longer the question, the less I have to write. And the best part is, both are good questions, even if they were phrased a bit oddly. But who am I to talk about odd writing?

First of all, don't get mad at me for asking you this, but are you sure that none of the "pretty drab" goldfinches were females?? I know it sounds like a silly question, but you would be surprised at the stuff people believe. I talked to a lady last week who thought a female cardinal that had lost its head feathers was a "baby vulture". Even though the bird was red and was eating sunflower seeds off a feeder, I couldn't convince her that it wasn't a baby vulture.

Both male and female goldfinches are dull greenish yellow in the winter. But come springtime, the male gets himself an extreme makeover and molts into a rockin' brilliant yellow. The male's spring molt clearly puts the gold in goldfinch. The female molts also, only she changes from drab yellow to less drab yellow.

Obviously, not all males molt at the same rate, so your question is a good one. In addition, there are more male goldfinches than there are females. It is possible that the first birds to change into their stunning summer colors will have more opportunities to attract a mate.

The problem is, exactly when goldfinches actually pair up is not clear. Some think that the pair bond forms on the wintering grounds when molting begins. If that is true, your theory of the first birds to complete the molt gaining the upper hand may have some merit. But others think that the actual nesting pairs aren't formed until later in June , after the spring molt has long been completed.

You see Hal, goldfinches don't start nesting until midsummer. Right now, in June, just about every other bird is sitting on eggs or is involved with someone who is. But the goldfinches are on an extended spring break. They won't be starting the parenting thing for several more weeks. The male goldfinches near my house have suddenly started flying high overhead, in a very elaborate display. These guys are acting much too showy and much too noisy for a bird that has already been claimed.

And to make things worse, goldfinches hang out in flocks, even during the breeding season. So when ten finches are clinging to a feeder, it is impossible to figure out who is hooked up with who. It's impossible unless you can somehow get them to gossip about each other, but finches are notoriously tight beaked.

My thought on all this, Hal, is that the early arrival of spring plumage is not the key factor in mate selection in goldfinches. But what do I know? I'm sure it is only a matter of time before someone conducts a twelve million dollar study that will confirm or disprove much of this. And then we still won't know.

As for your second question about other species of birds using your birdbath as a "singles bar", I would also say probably not. Much like the watering holes in Africa, feeding and bathing areas have their own kind of stress. Birds don't need the added pressure of mate hunting while they are trying to eat or drink. Perhaps we could learn from them.

Every species does things a little differently and their courting habits are varied. Some birds are already bonded from the previous year, while other birds pair up on their wintering grounds. Some females choose their mates based on the male's chosen territory and aren't all that turned on by all of the fancy colors and mating displays. Then there are a growing number of female birds that are ignoring the traditional mating methods and have been finding their partners on the internet. Which would explain all of those e-mails that I have been receiving from someone named Betty Bunting.


Artwork by Catherine Clark


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