On The Wing
November 2003

Carduelis tristis
In breeding plumage
Carduelis tristis
In non-breeding plumage

Fall/Winter Migrants to DFW: American Goldfinch

When the hummingbird feeders are cleaned and stored in October, my thoughts soon turn to attracting and feeding the coming fall migrants. Some migrants pass through and some hang around, just like family and friends. In the former bird category, last year I had a male Baltimore Oriole come through our yard two days in a row, but he ignored the orange we cut and spiked on the fence. Instinct is a strong force and, despite the offering, he apparently traveled on.

But for backyard birders in our area, there are a variety of reliable over wintering migrants. Small flocks of American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), pairs of Purple Finches, and large flocks Dark-eyed juncos begin to arrive in our area as early as November/ December. If my outdoor seed offerings work, these species are regular feeder eaters and, in the case of the juncos, under-feeder grazers, by early January.

If I can contain myself to one subject, I want to focus on the American goldfinch for all of those backyard birders out there.

Nylon mesh socks filled with fresh Niger thistle are my preferred offerings, because the goldfinch, and the less frequent, over-wintering Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus), are built for and readily attracted to this presentation. The year-round house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) stick to millet and sunflower seed. (See how hard it is for me to focus on one bird!) Thistle seeds stay drier in the nylon mesh socks due to air circulation, in my experience, than in the tube feeders. The exclusionary tube feeders may collect water in the tube bottom and need more maintenance and cleaning especially after rains. Some tube feeders have perches above the dispenser openings, and goldfinches are acrobatic enough to use these, but not sparrows and house finches. Perches below the narrow holes are more commonly found in stores. The downside to the less expensive socks: they are subject to squirrel and starling feeding frenzies that shred them to pieces. Since there are pros and cons to each version, I keep both type feeders up and have good luck with both.

The goldfinches will arrive in their drab winter plumage typically in small flocks. The plain female has unstreaked yellow-brown plumage. The non-breeding males are more distinctive with buff wing bars, showing brighter yellow-brown on the nape and around the eyes. Habitat is overgrown fields, open woody areas and hedgerows. Average length is 5", and weight 0.46 ounces. In nature the American goldfinch feeds on tree buds, weed seeds, especially thistle, and some insects. By March the bold lemon yellow and black plumage of the male is unmistakable. And then, they leave us.

Even in non-breeding yellow-brown colors, I fell in love with the sparrow-sized American goldfinches years ago when they first arrived at our second-year thistle feeders in the late fall. Now around the fall holiday season the yellow-tinted and -marked birds have become an annual Yard Watch event. Through the winter months as their plumage slowly brightens, our American goldfinch migrants remind me that spring cannot be far away.

Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, written and illustrated by David Allen Sibley, 2003.
Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, The How-To, Where-To and When-to of Birding by Pete Dunne, 2003.

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