BY HAROLD FISHER
SPECIAL TO RIMBEY REVIEW
A brilliant flash of yellow and a cheery ‘per- chick-a-pea’ — these are the trademarks of the American Goldfinch. We used to call them wild canaries, and everyone would know what we were talking about. Then sometime during the 60’s or 70’s the dawn of backyard birding arose and it became more fashionable to use the correct name for wild things. Actually, the ‘wild canary’ is not a canary at all, but a member of the finch family and aligns itself with the redpolls, siskins and grosbeaks.
During the summer months, the American Goldfinch is one of the more common birds to visit our feeders, and is attracted to a variety of seeds including niger and sunflowers seeds. The male is particularly handsome, decked out in a brilliant yellow body and accented with a black cap and black wings. It is not easily confused with any other summer visitor to the feeder and the flash of color as it suddenly flies away is unforgettable. The female’s coloration is more subdued than the male’s, the brownish-olive colors blending into the foliage, and is well suited to the nesting activities of summer. But the flash of yellow in the wings as it flies away and the bobbing undulating flight identifies it as a goldfinch.
American Goldfinches breed throughout most of the settled areas of Canada, preferring a mixture of woodland, farms and field edges up to the edge of the boreal forest. They avoid the open prairie and the mountains, but can be found in wooded coulees and valleys across the province and in the Cypress Hills. Occasionally a few goldfinches will winter in southern Alberta, but most leave for warmer southern climates as far south as Mexico.
The American Gold- finch is one of the last of the spring migrants to arrive in Alberta, usually not appearing in numbers until late May or June. It is a late nester, usually building its nest when the thistle down is flying in late June or early July. The nest is a compact cup of fine vegetation lined with thistle or cattail down placed in the crotch of a tree usually at a height of 1 to 4 m. The 4-6 pale blue eggs hatch in 12-14 days and the young are on the wing in less than 2 weeks after hatching.
The fledglings are dependent on the adults for another 3 weeks after leaving the nest. During late summer small family groups of goldfinches, now all wearing the drab female coloration are attracted to suburban gardens to pick at ripening heads of sunflowers and other seed heads as they mature. By the end of September most birds will have begun their southward migration, but a few will linger on into the autumn frosts to feast on an abundant seed crop.
The American Goldfinch is almost exclusively a seed-eater. It consumes very little insect matter and, unlike most passerines, feeds its young a diet of partly digested seed material. It is well adapted to obtaining all its protein requirements from a diet of seeds. This lack of insect protein in the nestling diet may explain why the Brown-headed Cowbird, a nest parasite of many pas- serines, fails to survive in goldfinch nests. Cowbird eggs hatch successfully, but their growth is retarded and almost all die before they can leave the nest.
(Sources: The Birds of Alberta, Salt and Wilk, 1976; Western Birds’ Nests, Harrison, 1979, Birds of North America Online, McGraw and Mid- dleton, 2009)