Mid to late November is the time to expect the smallest of the Winter Texans, the American Goldfinch, to be arriving in the Hill Country. Some are likely here now, but none have yet appeared at my feeders; I expect to see them very soon. Now that the two recent cold fronts have provided a small kick to their undertail coverts, I suspect more urgency for them to be in the warmer Hill Country. It is time to have the nyjer and blackoil sunflower seed feeders up and ready for their arrival.
For those of you who might be new to birding, we have two species of goldfinches in our area, the permanent resident Lesser Goldfinch, and the winter resident American Goldfinch. Both feature bright yellow and black plumages, but the American goldfinches arrive in their winter suits which are drabber than the Lessers’ black topcoats over bright yellow breasts. In late April the Americans begin to get their summer breeding plumage which features a black cap, wings and tail that beautifully contrasts with his yellow under parts. White rumps and white wing patches add accent trim.
Their being called “American” dates back the time the European settlers arrived on our continent in the late 1700s. Most of these people were familiar with the European goldfinches back home and dubbed them the American Goldfinch. The Lesser Goldfinches are natives of the southwestern states and were unknown to the settlers. I am sure the American Goldfinches provided the likely homesick immigrants a warm reminder of the birds they had left behind in Europe.
Goldfinches are gregarious birds that form small to large flocks including other finches and sparrows. Often they are found with Pine Siskins who share their love for nyjer and blackoil sunflower seeds. These mixed flocks of finches and sparrows also frequent weedy fields, brush fence rows, open woodlands and even cities. When eating native grass seeds, they will land on the grass stalk and ride it to the ground before consuming the seeds.
The numbers of individuals of both American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins tend to vary quite dramatically from year to year. Some years we have large numbers of one of these two winter residents and few of the other. I am not sure what drives the numbers, but food supply and weather are the likely controlling factors. Both birds have similar range maps which include most of the lower forty-eight states, so analyzing their movements can be difficult. It is possible that our Pine Siskins come from the West and the goldfinches from the East, thereby contributing additional variables.
Our Christmas Bird Count surveys generally tell us the mix we have for the current year. In our West Kerr count area in 2012 we had nearly one thousand Pine Siskins, a number sandwiched between virtually no siskins in 2011 and 2013. The American Goldfinches also varied, but not that dramatically. Observing the numbers of both species at your backyard feeders will likely give you an indication of this year’s distribution. It is very difficult to predict the expected numbers.
Feeding goldfinches and siskins does not come cheap as both birds have expensive tastes, particularly for expensive nyjer seed. If you want to add something new or different to your array of feeders, consider a nyjer feeder with the posts above the tiny feeding hole. The birds will have to hang upside down to feed. Since the birds don’t seem to have a preference, it is not considered cruel to have such feeders. The purpose of this array is to keep House Finches from raiding the expensive nyjer feeders. Try it and enjoy the upside down feeding birds.